Stress Is Aging You Faster—But It’s Possible to Slow Down the Biological Clock

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Key Takeaways

  • Chronic stress was associated with accelerated aging and increased insulin resistance.
  • Emotional regulation and self-control were associated with healthier aging and longevity.
  • This research provides opportunities to reduce the negative impacts of stress on aging.

Individuals are often told to reduce or manage their stress, especially over long periods of time. A new study published in Translational Psychiatry found that chronic stress may contribute to faster aging, but emotional regulation and self-control help.

This research study was conducted with 444 individuals between the ages of 18 and 50, whose blood samples were assessed in terms of age-related chemical changes and other markers of health, and participants were questioned regarding their levels of stress and psychological resilience.

Considering the negative impact of chronic stress on the aging process, this research could inform programs and services that would promote emotional regulation and self-control has the potential to improve long-term health outcomes for the public.

The Stress-Aging Connection

This study was conducted with 444 individuals based in New Haven, CT, between the ages of 18 and 50 to assess the role of stress and self-control on aging, based on blood samples and self-report of participants.

Researchers found that cumulative stress was linked with accelerated aging and insulin resistance, based on poor emotion regulation and such behavioral factors as smoking and Body Mass Index (BMI).

Body Mass Index (BMI) is a dated, biased measure that doesn’t account for several factors, such as body composition, ethnicity, race, gender, and age. Despite being a flawed measure, BMI is widely used today in the medical community because it is an inexpensive and quick method for analyzing potential health status and outcomes.

This is the first study to explore the impact of chronic stress on aging in a healthy community sample without significant physical or mental illness, which found that psychological resilience may improve aging outcomes.

Given its cross-sectional nature, a limitation of this study is that it can only provide correlative evidence to connect stress and aging, so longitudinal research would be needed in the future to support any causal findings.

Mood Regulation May Be Key

Leela R. Magavi, MD, a Johns Hopkins-trained psychiatrist and regional medical director for Mindpath Health, says, "This study postulates that emotion regulation and self-control may reduce the deleterious effects of stress on aging and overall well-being longitudinally."

Dr. Magavi explains, "Individuals with mood and anxiety disorders may engage in detrimental behavior to alleviate their stress, which could acutely and longitudinally exacerbate the effects of stress."

In this way, Dr. Magavi notes how medications and therapy can target mood and anxiety states, which consequently have the capacity to protect individuals. "Pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy can help individuals combat the inevitable stress of life, and appreciate the small, invaluable gifts of life during moments of gratitude," she says.

Dr. Magavi highlights, "It allows them to recuperate, so they can give back to loved ones and communities. This altruism further promotes happiness and creates a reward cycle. Learning how to respond better to stressful situations can help improve cognition, and thereby, leads to success in multiple life domains, inclusive of relationships and work performance."

Since individuals who can regulate their emotions better tend to invest in a healthy lifestyle, Dr. Magavi connects balanced meals and more frequent exercise to healthy aging. "This can lead to lower cholesterol and blood pressure levels and can even increase longevity," she says.

Leela R. Magavi, MD

Pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy can help individuals combat the inevitable stress of life, and appreciate the small, invaluable gifts of life during moments of gratitude.

— Leela R. Magavi, MD

Dr. Magavi explains, "I have evaluated patients and have observed significant improvements in vitals and lab results secondary to improved mental status and increased positive experiences."

Since mood stability can boost the immune system and decrease the frequency and severity of illnesses, Dr. Magavi highlights that mood regulation allows individuals to feel connected to one another. "This aligns with what I observe with patients as well as existing literature," she says.

Dr. Magavi notes that it may be interesting to explore in future research whether chronicity or severity of impulse control disorders and mood dysregulation affects individuals more, but this is difficult to assess.

By this, Dr. Magavi highlights various factors inclusive of developmental age, temperament, and genetic predisposition. "For example, I evaluate patients who have experienced mild symptoms for years and other patients who have experienced severe symptoms intermittently," she says.

Not All Stress is Bad

Behavioral health medical director at Community Health of South Florida Inc., psychiatrist Howard Pratt, DO, says, “Stress ages us faster, and the aging process accelerates the older we get."

Dr. Pratt explains, "Stress also reduces our quality of life, so we should take an active role in mitigating the stress in our lives. Readers should look to decrease their exposure to unnecessary stress."

While some stress cannot be avoided, Dr. Pratt notes that navigating stress can also create growth, so not all stress is bad. "Stress will shape your life. The onus is on you to remove stress or accommodate it," he says.

Dr. Pratt explains, "This research reaffirms that stress is not just a feeling and will manifest physically. When we grow accustomed to constant levels of stress, we don’t understand how out of control it has gotten."

Howard Pratt, DO

Stress will shape your life. The onus is on you to remove stress or accommodate it.

— Howard Pratt, DO

Using the photos of presidents before and after their terms, Dr. Pratt notes how most would agree that such work visibly ages them. "You can clearly see in the photographs at the end of their presidential terms how stress has ravaged their appearance in just four to eight years," he says.

Dr. Pratt highlights, "This isn’t exclusive to presidents. It happens to all of us, so you have to be aware of stress in your life. It’s much easier to recognize stress in someone else’s life than your own.” 

By clarifying that not all stress should be avoided, Dr. Pratt notes that rewards can be achieved through stress. "A person who takes up exercising can find the activity initially to be stressful both physically and emotionally, but the reward, in the long run, is better health,” he says.

Dr. Pratt asks patients to consider that moment when they go to bed, when the lights are off, and they are alone with their thoughts. "I ask what they are thinking about then. If those thoughts are negative, and making them anxious, that is a very good measure of their level of stress” he says. 

What This Means For You

As this study demonstrates, stress can contribute to accelerated aging, but emotional regulation and self-control can reduce its impact. Individuals manage stress in a variety of ways but it is worth exploring given how it can affect health outcomes. If you struggle to address stress on your own, it may help to access informal or formal support.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Krystal Jagoo
 Krystal Kavita Jagoo is a social worker, committed to anti-oppressive practice.