Stress Shown to Accelerate Aging of Immune Systems in Older Adults

Chronic stress can make us feel anxious, nervous, and unmotivated, and can also have a serious, negative impact on our physical health, increasing the risk of hypertension, heart attack, stroke, injury, headaches, and chronic fatigue.

A new study published in the Proceeding of Natural Academy of Sciences, a peer reviewed journal of the National Academy of Sciences, takes this existing body of research one step further, showing that chronic stress can actually result in premature aging of the immune system.

older couple dealing with chronic stress“People with higher stress scores had older-seeming immune profiles, with lower percentages of fresh disease fighters and higher percentages of worn-out T-cells,” Eric Klopack, the study’s lead author and postdoctoral scholar at the University of Southern California’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, told CNN.

T cells (also called T lymphocytes) are essential components of the immune system, as they’re responsible for killing infected host cells, activating other immune cells, and regulating the immune response. A weakened immune system means that the body will have a harder time protecting itself from degenerative diseases brought on by aging, such as inflammation, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer’s. And since the body’s immune system naturally deteriorates with age, the prolonged existence of chronic stressors accelerates the process to potentially harmful levels.

The study analyzed blood biomarkers of 5,744 adults over the age of 50 collected as part of the Health and Retirement Study, a long-term national study of economic, health, marital and family stresses in older Americans. Participants were then asked questions about their levels of stressors, which ranged from life events to chronic stress to a history of discrimination. The results of the survey were then compared with each participant’s T-cell count.

The study found that individuals who reported higher levels of stress had fewer T-cells, which indicates a weakened immune system, even after controlling for other factors such as smoking, alcohol use, weight, education, and ethnicity. Those who maintained physical activity and smart food choices were able to better insulate themselves against a prematurely aging immune system, so in addition to focused stress management, these behaviors should be maintained.

Regardless of whether it’s acknowledged, redirected, or suppressed, stress can have a major impact on one’s overall health and wellbeing. Therefore, it’s important to know how to respond during uncomfortable or difficult situations. Healthy Monday offers different categories of stress-relief, all designed to help you carve out moments of calm using practices such as mindfulness, deep breathing, and one-minute meditations. By incorporating these techniques into your life, you can develop a more effective practice of navigating stressful situations successfully, which may improve your immunity over time.