Stress can age the immune system, new study finds

Today, most people know that stress can seriously affect mental and physical health. And when this stress is prolonged, studies suggest that it can increase the risk of certain health problems, such as asthma, ulcers, strokes and heart attacks. Now, new research suggests that certain types of stress can even age your immune system.

Using an existing dataset, the researchers analyzed the responses of a nationally representative sample of more than 5,700 adults aged 50 and older in the United States and compared them to the number of immune cells in the blood of the participants. The survey asked respondents about their experiences with social stressors, such as job strain, chronic stress, stressful events, traumatic events, and daily or ongoing discrimination (including sexism or ageism ).

The team found that higher stress levels were associated with older immune system profiles. The results were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

What the results suggest

As your immune system ages, your body has a less coordinated response to new threats because it produces different types of immune cells in different proportions than when you were younger, he said. Eric Klopack, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher in gerontology at the University of Southern California. At the same time, older, worn-out immune cells tend to overpower younger, more agile cells, resulting in a less robust immune response.

Until now, no one has fully studied the relationship between social stress and immune function, at least not at this level of detail, he said. Matthew Yousefzadeh, who studies aging at the University of Minnesota and was not involved in the new research. And although the new study is limited in that it only looked at a few types of immune cells – specifically CD4 and CD8 T cells – Yousefzadeh said they are a good indicator of the robustness of the immunity. “It’s kind of a peek under the hood of the car to see how you’re doing with the infections,” he said.

The new research responds to a timely concern amid the Covid-19 pandemic. “I think a lot of people are now looking for ways to rejuvenate, boost or strengthen the immune system, especially as they get older,” Yousefzadeh said. And so any information about how immune aging works, or how it might be different for some people, is valuable for public health.

What can you do

Even though researchers have found that some forms of social stress are linked to changes in participants’ immune cells, Klopack cautioned that experts don’t fully understand how one thing influences the other.

When they statistically controlled for behaviors like smoking or drinking, some of these associations with immune aging “disappeared or were reduced”, he said, suggesting that these behaviors may have played some role in aging. of their immune system. One way to prevent immune cell aging, Klopack said, may be to watch out for unhealthy habits.

Mitigating these effects requires taking stock of your emotions, Eddy said. Everyone is affected by stress in different ways, she said, so ways to deal with it can also vary. Focusing on what brings you joy and where you can find social support can help. This can mean cultivating hobbies, spending time with loved ones, or disconnecting from work or social media when you can.

Mindfulness practices, exercise and healthy eating habits can also help you feel good physically, which can make you feel good mentally, she added.

If you encounter social stressors on a daily basis — whether at work, in your social life, or at home — think about what you can do to keep them under control, Eddy said. If a friend’s political views constantly disturb you, you can limit your contact with him or change your social circle. If a colleague puts you down because of your age, it might be worth confronting them about it. Looking at the full context of where and how stressful situations play out in your life is the first step in deciding how you can move forward.

Of course, there will be situations you can’t control, Eddy added, but the more you can do to better understand their effect on you, the more you can do to mitigate them.

There’s a lot more to discover, Klopack said. The new study looked at older, mostly white people at some point in their lives based on self-reported levels of stress. Scientists don’t know how stress affects young people’s immune systems or how changes in the immune system can persist.

One thing to remember, though, is that the most important thing “that contributes to immune aging is just aging,” he said. Idan Shalev, a biobehavioral health scientist at Pennsylvania State University who studies the effects of stress across the lifespan. Therefore, the strategies for preventing immune aging are generally the same as for preventing the effects of aging in general: eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, limiting or avoiding smoking and drinking, and sleeping well. “Having social supports like family and friends is also very important,” Shalev said, as loneliness can also affect the immune system.

We should all implement these good habits right away, he added, and not wait until we are close to retirement.

Another way to interpret this new study, Yousefzadeh said, is that social stressors like trauma and discrimination can affect life expectancy. But while there is a lot of research interest in rejuvenating our immune system, science has yet to find a way to reverse aging, he added. So it’s important to do everything you can to keep your immune system strong, he said, because when things get bad you can’t go back to how they were before. / TRANSLATION BY RENATO PRELORENTZOU

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