Many of us see President Obama's graying hair and think, "it must be all the stress he's under." We view Hillary Clinton's furrowed brow and assume, "it's the weight of the world that is adding years to her face." But does stress and anxiety actually accelerate the aging process? Is there scientific evidence to back this perception?
The fact is, the results from research are themselves pretty gray. Some studies suggest that stress has direct negative effects on our physical and emotional health, but its exact relationship is complex and not yet fully understood.
Here is what we know. Acute anxiety is our natural response to a real or perceived threat, what we call the fight/flight reaction. It involves a two-way communication between our brain and body, resulting in activation of our cardiovascular, immune, and other biological systems. It's our survival instinct at work. But, when anxiety is prolonged—that is, when our flight/flight reaction goes on alert and remains there—our physiological systems elevate for longer periods of time and ultimately become maladaptive. The result? It wears our bodies down.
Research has shown us how this happens, pointing toward the impact that "stress chemicals" have when they are released into our bodies. They include 1) adrenaline 2) norepinephrine and 3) cortisol.
Adrenaline is known to accelerate our heart rate, inhibit digestion, constrict blood vessels and decrease our hearing and vision.
Norepinephrine also accelerates the heart and can affect a part of the brain that is responsible for attention or focus.
Cortisol production increases blood pressure, blood sugar levels, hardens arteries, increases fat storage and lowers growth hormone. Cortisol also appears to play a role in osteoporosis, muscle and collagen loss, and is believed to weaken the immune system.
Which is all to say that the chemicals emitted when we experience continuous stress can lead our bodies to undergo internal changes, which can potentially promote the visible ones that we associate with aging.
But, there is even more we know. Genetic studies have demonstrated connections between stress and deterioration on the cellular level as well. To simplify very complicated genetic research, there are three likely contributors to the aging process: 1) oxidative stress 2) glycation and 3) diminishing telomeres.
Oxidative stress is believed to damage our genes as the result of production of oxidants (highly reactive substances caused by inflammation, infection, consumption of alcohol and cigarettes). In one study, scientists exposed worms to two substances that neutralized oxidants and the worms' lifespan increased an average 44 percent. Researchers suspect, (but have not yet proven), that severe oxidative stress causes cell death in humans and directly contributes to our aging process.
Glycation happens when glucose (sugar) binds to our DNA, proteins and lipids, leaving them less effective. Studies show that as we get older, glycation causes a decrease in circulation, stiffening of the skin and increased malfunction of body tissue. Scientists are actively studying how glycation may explain why restricting calorie intake in laboratory animals extends their lifespan.
Diminishing telomeres is a natural process that occurs every time a cell divides and reproduces. Telomeres are the regions found at the ends of our chromosomes and as we age, they naturally decrease. Researchers are now studying how anxiety and stress may expedite this process, exploring its relationship to an increase in the death of cells, muscle weakening, loss of eyesight and hearing, wrinkles and graying.
Biological processes aside, there are daily lifestyle choices that may also contribute to wrinkles and gray hair. When people worry, they frequently don't eat as well, have less time to exercise, smoke cigarettes and sleep irregularly, all of which can affect the aging process. If you include frowning, brow tensing and the tightening of facial and neck muscles that can come with stress, we have a recipe for a premature aging appearance.
We can only imagine how fast and furiously the stress hormones of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are flowing. Surely, their natural oxidation, glycation and telomere shortening are on overdrive, leading their faces and bodies toward old age faster than your average everyday person. But for the rest of us? We can try our best to keep our stress levels at a minimum, so we can prolong the health and vitality of our bodies well into our 80s and 90s.
Sure, we all age. And, in all likelihood, how we age is primarily determined by our DNA and the DNA of our parents and grandparents. But, we have learned a lot in recent years about the interplay between stress, biochemistry and genetics. If we can manage to keep anxiety and stress from accelerating our natural physiological changes internally and externally, we are likely to look and feel better for longer periods of time.
Has stress had an impact on your aging experience? Tell us how.
Vivian Diller, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice in New York City. She serves as a media expert on various psychological topics and as a consultant to companies promoting health, beauty and cosmetic products. Her book, "Face It: What Women Really Feel As Their Looks Change" (2010), edited by Michele Willens, is a psychological guide to help women deal with the emotions brought on by their changing appearances.
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