Social stress, such as discrimination and family problems, along with work and financial problems, can contribute to premature aging of the immune system, according to a new study. This is a double whammy, since the immune system deteriorates, to begin with, with age.
Immune aging can cause cancer, heart disease and other age-related conditions, and reduce the effectiveness of vaccines, such as the one that prevents Covid-19, said lead author Eric Klopack, a postdoctoral fellow at the Leonard School of Gerontology. Davis of the University of Southern California.
“People with higher stress scores had immune profiles that seemed older, with lower percentages of fresh disease fighters and higher percentages of worn-out T cells,” Klopack said.
T cells are part of the body’s most important defenses, as they perform several key functions. “Killer” T cells can directly kill virus-infected and cancerous cells, and help kill so-called “zombie cells,” senescent cells that no longer divide but refuse to die.
Senescent cells are problematic because they release a series of proteins that affect the tissues around them. These cells have been shown to contribute to chronic inflammation. As they accumulate in the body, they promote aging conditions such as osteoporosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.
In addition to finding that people who reported higher stress levels had more zombie cells, Klopack and his team found that they also had fewer T cells. naive or inexperienced, which are the young and fresh cells needed to face new invaders.
“This work adds to the findings that psychological stress, on the one hand, and well-being and resources, on the other, are associated with immunological aging,” said clinical psychologist Suzanne Segerstrom, who was not involved in the study.
Segerstrom, a professor of health and social developmental psychology at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, has studied the connection between self-regulation, stress and immune function.
“In one of our most recent studies… older people with more psychological resources had ‘younger’ T cells,” Segerstrom said.
Scientists detect that stress can change your brain
Klopack’s study, published in the academic journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, analyzed blood biomarkers from 5,744 adults over age 50 collected as part of the Health and Retirement Study, a long-term national study of economic stresses, health, marital, and family health of older Americans.
Study participants were asked about their levels of social stress, which included “stressful life events, chronic stress, everyday discrimination, and lifetime discrimination,” Klopack explained. His responses were compared to the levels of T cells found in his blood tests.
“This is the first time that detailed information on immune cells has been collected in a large national survey,” Klopack said.
“We found that older adults with low ratios of naive cells and high ratios of older T cells have older immune systems.”
T cells are activated by dendritic cells to generate an immune response.
The study found that the association between stressful life events and fewer inexperienced T cells remained strong even after controlling for factors such as education, smoking, alcohol use, weight, and race/ethnicity. Klopack said.
However, when poor diet and lack of exercise were taken into account, part of the connection between social stress levels and an aging immune system disappeared.
This finding indicates that the extent to which our immune systems age when we are stressed is within our control, Klopack said.
How does stress affect the brain?
When stress hormones flood the body, the brain’s neural circuitry changes, affecting our ability to think and make decisions, experts say. Anxiety increases and mood may change. All of these neurological changes affect the entire body, including the autonomic, metabolic, and immune systems.
“The most common stressors are those that act chronically, often at a low level, and cause us to behave in certain ways. For example, being ‘stressed’ can make us anxious and/or depressed, lose sleep at night, that we eat comfort foods and encourage more calories than our bodies need, and that we smoke or drink alcohol excessively,” wrote renowned neuroendocrinologist Bruce McEwen in a 2017 review of the impact of stress in the brain.
McEwen, who made the landmark 1968 discovery that the brain’s hippocampus can be modified by stress hormones such as cortisol, passed away in 2020 after 54 years of research in neuroendocrinology at Rockefeller University in New York.
“Being ‘stressed’ can also cause us to stop seeing friends, or take time off from work, or reduce our commitment to regular physical activity while, for example, sitting in front of the computer and trying to get out of the burden of having too much to do,” McEwen wrote.
There are ways to stop stress before it wreaks havoc. Deep breathing activates our parasympathetic nervous system, the opposite of the “flight or fight” response. Filling your belly with air to the count of six will ensure that you are breathing deeply.
Moving your body as if in slow motion is another way to activate that calming reflex, experts say.
Interrupt your stressful and anxious thoughts with cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. It has been shown in randomized clinical trials to relieve depression, anxiety, obsessive thoughts, eating and sleeping disorders, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, and others. This practice tends to focus more on the present than the past, and is often a short-term treatment, experts say.
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