Can stress accelerate the ageing process?

3 April 2024 dot 6-minute read
Healthy body Healthy Mind Live Well Living healthy Managing stress
Studies found that exposure to stress can cause inflammation and damage to DNA in cells, which in turn can accelerate ageing. (Credit: Shutterstock)
Stress is an inevitable part of life. It is a response to the pressures and challenges we face. However, it's not just a mental state; it can significantly impact our physical well-being. In this article, we explore the question: can stress cause you to age faster? Let's delve into the science and implications of the relationship between stress and the ageing process.

Understanding stress

Stress is the body's natural response to demands or challenges involving physiological and psychological aspects. Physiologically, it triggers reactions like releasing stress hormones and preparing for a 'fight or flight' response. Psychologically, it leads to emotional, cognitive, and behavioural changes, often causing anxiety and concentration issues. 
There are two types of stress – acute and chronic stress. Acute stress is an immediate response to threats like tight deadlines or near accidents, while chronic stress results from prolonged exposure to stressors, such as work pressures, financial strains, or strained relationships. Common modern sources of stress include a fast-paced lifestyle, work demands, and personal responsibilities. Understanding stress is vital for managing its impact on overall well-being.

Stress and biological aging

According​ to a Healthline article, experts say that exposure to stress can cause inflammation and damage to DNA in cells, which in turn can accelerate ageing. The physiological response to chronic stress, particularly the prolonged release of stress hormones like cortisol, can lead to cellular damage, inflammation, and a weakened immune system. 
Over time, this wear and tear on the body's cells can contribute to premature ageing by increasing the risk of chronic diseases and promoting the breakdown of collagen and elastin, which are essential for youthful skin and overall health. In essence, the relentless burden of stress can significantly impact the way our bodies age, making stress management a crucial component of maintaining long-term health and vitality.

Psychological and cognitive aging

Stress can exert a profound influence on psychological and cognitive ageing. A study by The International Journal on the Biology of Stress ​​said that chronic stress can impair cognitive function and memory, as prolonged exposure to stress hormones can lead to structural changes in the brain, particularly in the hippocampus, which is crucial for memory.  
Over time, this can result in difficulties with concentration, learning, and memory recall. Furthermore, the long-term consequences of chronic stress on brain health may increase the risk of neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer's disease.
People who are under stress are more likely to eat unhealthily. (Credit: Shutterstock)

Lifestyle factors

Stress can trigger unhealthy lifestyle choices such as smoking and excessive consumption of alcohol. (The Health City Online). People under constant stress also often turn to junk food and neglect exercise. This kind of behaviour can contribute to premature ageing. Stress-related insomnia, a common side effect, can further disrupt sleep patterns, leaving you tired and mentally drained.  
Consider the scenario of someone juggling a demanding job and family responsibilities. They may choose fast food over healthier choices because it's quick and convenient. This pattern can impact their health and, ultimately, their rate of ageing.

Coping mechanisms and stress reduction

To counteract the effects of stress on ageing, it is vital to embrace stress-reduction methods. Meditation, yoga, and mindfulness have shown their effectiveness in stress management. Integrating these techniques into your daily life may help slow the ageing process.
For instance, individuals who practice mindfulness regularly often report improved mental clarity and emotional resilience. They are better equipped to handle stress and its adverse effects on ageing.

Reduce stress at any life stage

Those who adhere to the following lifestyle practices can cultivate resilience and keep their stress levels within healthy thresholds:
  • Get at least 7 hours of sleep.
  • Consume 4-5 servings of fruit and vegetables.
  • Engage in 30 minutes of physical activity daily.
  • Spend 15-20 minutes outdoors each day.
  • Power down electronic devices 1 hour before bedtime.
In conclusion, stress can indeed accelerate the ageing process. Chronic stress affects our biology, cognition, and lifestyle choices, all contributing to premature ageing. Incorporating stress-reduction techniques into your daily routine and seeking professional guidance when necessary can help maintain your health and vitality as you navigate life's inevitable pressures. Remember, while we can't eliminate stress, we can control how we respond to it. Prioritising stress management is a proactive step towards a healthier, more vibrant future.
Kim, J. J., Song, E. Y., & Kosten, T. A. (2006). Stress effects in the hippocampus: Synaptic plasticity and memory. Stress, 9(1), 1–11. [online] 
Stokes, V. (2023, April 24). Stress can increase your biological age. Here’s how you can reverse it.  Healthline. [online] 
The Health City - Unhealthy lifestyle - stress. (n.d.).  The Health City - Unhealthy lifestyle - stress. (n.d.). [online] 

This is general information only and is not intended as financial, medical, health, nutritional or other advice. You should obtain professional advice from a financial adviser, or medical or health practitioner in relation to your own personal circumstances.

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