Did you know 75 to 90 per cent of all doctor's office visits are for stress-related ailments and complaints? While it is true our bodies are designed to utilize stress – the positive "eustress" which keeps us alert and ready to avoid danger, stress becomes negative, or "distress" when we experience continuous challenges without relief or relaxation. This type of stress will build into chronic stress which can cause a long list of ailments like headaches, high blood pressure, heart problems, diabetes, skin conditions, depression, anxiety and more.
Now, new studies are revealing chronic stress may also have harmful effects on the body at the most fundamental level of cellular biology and ageing. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that stress can add years to the age of individual immune system cells. The scientists tracked the telomeres and the stress levels of fifty-eight healthy premenopausal women and concluded that "on average, the immune system cells of highly stressed women had aged by an extra 10 years"!
Telomere are reliable markers of the ageing process. These are the caps on the end of chromosomes which shorten every time the cell divides. Researchers were unable to explain exactly how the women's excessive stress had added the years to the immune cells. But they theorized that their stress hormones "could somehow be shortening telomeres and cutting the life span of the cells."
More tests will need to be completed and verified, but this will be an astonishing development if proven out.
The good news is we have a lot of control over our emotional stress reactions. We don’t have to stay in a state of stress. We can choose to do something about it. There are proven strategies we can turn to in order to help us manage our stress and possibly live longer.
But first, let’s get one theory out of the way. So many “experts” have spoken and written on the idea that we must have a positive attitude to live a long life. You might be glad to hear this just isn’t true. There isn’t a shred of evidence. Grumpy people can and do live as long as happy-go-lucky people. Being a sourpuss or in possession of a biting sense of satire can be enjoyable, after all.
What HAS been proven to be a strong mitigating factor and buffer for stress is a supportive social circle of friends and family. Susan Pinker presented a Ted Talk called The secret to living longer may be your social life, where she presented the results of her study of centenarians on the Italian island of Sardinia. She chose it because, astonishingly, there are TEN times as many centenarians than there are in North America.
It wasn’t because of sunny dispositions or a low-fat, gluten-free diet, clean air or virtuous lifestyle. It was their emphasis on close personal relationships and face-to-face interactions. As she says, “fresh evidence shows that in-person friendships create a biological force field against disease and decline.”
The most effective way to reduce stress in your life (and hopefully live longer) is to build and curate friendships. If you are a bit shy or reluctant, remember the best way to attain a friend is to BE a friend.
A second way to manage stress is probably won't be a surprise to you. We were designed to move much more than our sedentary lives allow. Next time you are feeling stressed and no one is around with and ear to bend, getting out for a long walk is your next best option.
A study published in Psychoneuroendocrinology found physically fit women in their mid-60s had the same response to stress as a group of unfit women in their late 20s. In contrast, women in their mid-60s who were not physically fit released greater amounts of cortisol in response to stress.
Higher levels of cortisol equal high levels of stress. What’s the best way to lower cortisol? Exercise. It is a proven stress-buster for people of all ages, and regular exercise reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body. We most definitely need to schedule some form of exercise into our often-hectic lives.
Lower your stress and live longer by staying connected to friends and family, exercising, and staying active. A fabulous secondary effect is it makes life worth living too. Wouldn’t you agree?
Otte, C. et al. A meta-analysis of cortisol response to challenge in human aging: importance of gender. Psychoneuroendocrinology. January 30(1): 80-91.