Stress is manageable, but not preventable.
Everyone goes through stressful experiences of varying degrees. We sometimes think that stress is just in the mind: a reaction to a situation that will go away by itself (or when the situation resolves). Then, we think, we recover and go back to feeling normal.Stress, however, has many long-term effects on your body and is ageing many different parts of you. What exactly is it doing, and how is it doing it?
IT AGES YOUR BRAIN
According to new (yet unpublished) research by University of Wisconsin, stressful life experiences can age your brain by several years. Part of a presentation in July by Alzheimer Association researchers, the study looked at how serious life stresses – losing a job, the death of a child, poverty, divorce, growing up with a parent who is an addict – affect cognitive function later in life.
Overall, those who experienced one of such stresses (or, arguably, we should call them traumas) saw their brain function age four years faster than it usually would. Four major traumas in a lifetime, thus, would theoretically age the brain by 16 years. The effects of this are impairment on immediate memory, both verbal and visual learning and memory, and ability to recall stories.
IT DAMAGES YOUR CELLS
Occupational stress (i.e. from work) has a negative effect on some of your vital DNA cells, a PLoS ONE journal article found. Prolonged work stress accelerates biological ageing and causes your “leukocyte telomeres” to be shorter than those with no occupational stress.
When these telomeres are shorter, cells become damaged or can die, which puts you at increased risk for Parkinson’s Disease, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain cancer types.
What’s more, just the anticipation of stress (that feeling of anxiety that you’re going to have to deal with an uncomfortable situation) may promote that cellular ageing too.
IT RAISES YOUR BLOOD PRESSURE
Sustained stress decreases the body’s ability to control its cardiovascular system and moderate the way it responds. The chemicals produced in your body from prolonged stress, cortisol
and norepinephrine, gradually increase your blood pressure and ages your arteries.
Stressed people tend to have higher blood sugar levels and sugar is used in the body to aid in the recovery process, rather than being stored in your muscle and fat cells.
IT AGES YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM
Ageing of the immune system is closely related to chronic stress and natural ageing. Stress in your older age is perhaps the most concerning: there’s much evidence out there from sources such as Brain Behaviour and Immunity journal providing evidence of how stress in older adults contribute to the effects that mimic, exacerbate, and potentially accelerate decreased immune function.
When you’re ageing normally you need the strongest immune system possible, and “dysregulated” immunity from external factors such as stress has a substantial effect on physical health; particularly the responsiveness of the nervous system.
IT GIVES YOU WRINKLES
It’s no secret that stress leads to wrinkles on your face, but through what mechanism is this happening? It’s the combined result of changes to your telomeres, cells, blood pressure, and immunity: they all lead to premature ageing.
While this kind of superficial ageing happens to both sexes, most research has been conducted on women. Boston’s Brigham Women’s Hospital’s research, for example, has linked short telomeres and damaged cells (from stress and anxiety) to six years’ worth of extra ageing on women’s skin.
IT DISRUPTS YOUR SLEEPING, WHICH ALSO GIVES YOU WRINKLES
When you get eight-odd hours of sleep every night, your body has time to fully regenerate. Being stressed causes us all to lose sleep, and prolonged lack of shut eye impacts your memory and cognitive performance, the immune and physiological systems, and, once again, also ages your face.
Clinical trials by Estee Lauder have found that sleep deprivation reduces the skin’s ability to recover after sun exposure. Those who don’t sleep well also exhibit more fine lines, uneven skin pigmentation, and reduced skin elasticity than those who claim to sleep soundly most nights.
Save for making active mental changes to improve your stress management (e.g. mindfulness, meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy), the best thing you can do to mitigate stress symptoms and their ageing effects is exercise. Nothing, though, can reverse the process for damage already done.
Lee Suckling has a master’s degree specializing in personal-health reporting.