Reducing Daily Stressors to Increase Longevity and Well-Being
Whether it’s planning a dinner party or preparing for a major life change, there are many reasons why people experience stress. Small amounts of stress are normal and natural, and recognizing feelings of stress can help guide how we make decisions and keep us motivated through challenges.
But when we experience chronic stress, it can have long-term negative effects on our overall well-being and lead to premature aging. Here’s what you should know about stress management and how it can lead to a longer, healthier life.
Can Stress Really Affect Aging?
Learning about the link between stress and aging requires a fundamental understanding of telomeres. Telomeres are protective caps on the ends of chromosomes that determine how quickly cells age. Shortened telomeres are a sign of biological and cellular aging and have been associated with chronic disease and premature death.
According to endurance athlete Christopher Bergland, stressful life experiences have been known to accelerate telomere shortening. Stress can be caused by a variety of factors throughout life and is often associated with depression and other anxieties. Bergland cites one study that shows having chronic phobic anxiety is associated with shortened telomere lengths in middle-aged women. Compared to women of the same age who didn’t experience chronic phobic anxiety, these shortened telomeres were equivalent to six years of premature aging.
The Secret Link Between Premature Aging and Chronic Conditions
Further research points out that stress associated with certain disorders may increase the risk of age-related disease. For example, one study found that older people with bipolar disorder experienced accelerated epigenetic aging. Postdoctoral research fellow Gabriel R. Fries explains that these findings show a link between accelerated aging and chronic cumulative exposure to stress.
Similarly, clinical psychologist and professor Joel Nigg, Ph.D., shows how conditions like ADHD can also lead to shortened telomeres and increased epigenetic changes related to aging and age-related disease. Stress management through mindfulness and self-care, however, were shown to reduce ADHD symptoms and therefore reduce the stress they’re commonly associated with.
Findings like these indicate that people who suffer chronic lifelong stress caused by health conditions may experience age-related diseases at a higher frequency. Furthermore, the research shows that stress—regardless of its cause—can lead to accelerated aging.
Making Lifestyle Changes to Live Longer
Stress management techniques may offer a solution, reversing damage and leading to increased vitality.
Lifestyle changes like improving your diet, exercise and dedicated stress management techniques can actually lengthen telomeres, according to research from the University of California San Francisco. In a study that followed men with localized, early-stage prostate cancer, 10 out of 35 patients underwent lifestyle improvements in diet, exercise, stress management and community support. These patients had a 10% average increase in telomere length over the 5-year study; the men who didn’t participate in the lifestyle changes experienced a 3% average decrease in telomere length.
Dean Ornish, MD, UCSF clinical professor of medicine and lead author of the above study, notes that while many people think they don’t have control over factors that contribute to longevity, “these findings indicate that telomeres may lengthen to the degree that people change how they live. Research indicates that longer telomeres are associated with fewer illnesses and longer life.”
Simple Stress-Management Techniques
If diet and exercise alone aren’t helping you manage persistent or chronic stress, here are a few more expert-recommended options to consider.
Stress and negative thinking can lead to detrimental emotional states, which may make a person more susceptible to diseases. On the positive side, as noted by neuropsychologist Jennifer Wolkin, meditation can help a person feel less stressed, in turn boosting their immunity and resiliency.
Meditation has long been cited as an effective strategy for reducing stress. But can meditation prevent telomere shortening? This question was explored in a study on meditation and telomere length in breast cancer survivors. Led by psychologist Dr. Linda E. Carlson, the study found that telomere length remained steady in patients who participated in a cancer recovery program featuring mindfulness practices, stress management and yoga—the group that didn’t take advantage of stress management techniques had comparably shorter telomeres.
Meditation has also been associated with increased immunity. Professor and researcher Richard J. Davidson led a study in which two groups of people were compared over an eight-week period. One group engaged in regular meditation exercises for the full eight weeks while the other group did not change their lifestyle. After both groups were treated with influenza vaccine, the group with exposure to mindfulness therapy revealed improved brain and immune function compared to the control group.
While the exact link between aging and telomere length is still being explored, these findings show that meditative techniques can preserve chromosomes and support vitality throughout the aging process.
Exercise is another lifestyle change commonly associated with leading a longer, healthier life. A wide body of research points to the link between mind-body interventions (think yoga and taichi) and reduced stress levels.
Ivana Buric, researcher on the benefits of yoga and meditation, states that while many people are aware that yoga and other mind-body interventions are beneficial, what they don’t realize is that “these benefits begin at a molecular level and can change the way our genetic code goes about its business.” According to Buric, yoga leaves a molecular signature on our cells, reversing the potential negative effects of stress and improving overall health.
Psychiatrist Marlynn Wei, MD, JD echoes this theory, noting that higher levels of cortisol are often found in people with chronic stress. Consistently high cortisol levels can lead to chronic inflammation and overactive fight-or-flight responses in the body. She points to several studies, including one that linked yoga to reduced cellular aging, lower levels of cortisol and decreased inflammation. In another, participants experienced increased anti-inflammatory protectors and decreased proinflammatory markers after 3 months of regular yoga practice.
If you’re interested in managing stress better, engaging in weekly mind-body interventions like yoga can help reduce cortisol, inflammation and aging associated with chronic stress.
Understanding Stress to Improve Performance
Despite the fact that chronic stress can have negative impacts on our longevity, experiencing some stress is a normal part of life. As New York Times Well writer Tara Parker-Pope explores, “rethinking stress” by understanding what occurs in our bodies when we’re under pressure can actually give us strength and improve our performance while completing challenging tasks. Knowing that “a higher heart rate, faster breathing and internal jitters” are the body’s way of helping us succeed can increase confidence and make us better at what we’re doing. In other words, rather than trying to ignore stress, rethinking and even embracing it can help us overcome its negative effects.
Calmer Minds, Longer Lives
Understanding stress is the first step toward combating stress-related damage to our bodies and minds. Following a healthy diet complete with the right nutrients, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep and practicing mindfulness have all been shown to have a positive impact on genetic behaviors, allowing for us to live longer, more vital lives. Knowing how to stay cool not only helps us feel better on a moment-to-moment basis, it can actually help extend our telomeres—and our lives.
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