- Stress is endemic to modern society.
- People are convinced that stress is leading to their demise, and it's true that stress can contribute to life-threatening illnesses.
- Compared to 100 years ago, dying of stress-related illness in our 70s or 80s is a luxury.
Welcome to Stress on the Brain. In this blog, I'll be writing about stress and its impacts on the way we think, the way we behave, and the way we get sick. When I first meet someone and the conversation turns to my area of research, the most common response I get is, "You should study me because I'm so stressed!" This response reflects our culture's attitudes: Stress negatively affects the way we think. Stress negatively affects our health. Stress is going to kill us.
What I tell people in response is both good and bad news. The bad news? Stress is going to kill you. The good news? It's probably going to take a long time.
What do I mean by this? Consider that 100 years ago, the average life expectancy in the U.S. was about 54 years. Compare that to our current life expectancy of 76 years (in 2021, the most recent year for which data are available).
What was killing people so young 100 years ago?
Among the top five causes of death in 1923 were infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and influenza. Today, by contrast, four of the top five causes of death are stress-related: heart disease, cancer, chronic respiratory diseases, and stroke. (I haven't forgotten that over 1 million Americans recently died from another infectious disease, COVID-19, but the point remains that most of the maladies that kill us today are made worse by stress.)
Why is this good news? One hundred years ago, most deaths of American adults were due to infectious diseases occurring in their 50s. Today, by contrast, we have the luxury of dying of stress in our late 70s or even older.
Much of this difference is due to the massive successes of public health.
Clean drinking water. Centralized sanitation. Improvements in maternal and infant health programs. These programs have shifted the causes of death for most Americans from acute infections to chronic diseases. Such chronic diseases are strongly impacted by lifestyle factors such as diet and stress.
Take, for example, the number-one killer of adults, heart disease. The cardiovascular system, including the heart and blood vessels, is a particularly sensitive target of stress. The system includes a pump (the heart) and a sequence of elastic tubes (blood vessels), which are always working.
One of the primary stress responses is to increase blood flow to working muscles to outrun a predator on the proverbial savannah. Just like with any mechanical system, the cardiovascular system will eventually wear out with increased use, as when under chronic stress. Modern stress rarely necessitates running from a predator, so the increased wear and tear on our cardiovascular system is for naught. It just hastens the eventual breakdown of the system.
This doesn't sound like good news, either. But hold on. Advances in cardiovascular medicine reduce the negative impact of the modern lifestyle on our hearts and blood vessels. The negative impact that stress can have on the cardiovascular system can be counteracted with improvements in diet, exercise, and medicine, prolonging the health of the system into our eighth or ninth decade. The impact of stress is still there, but our modern mitigation techniques allow us to maintain a healthy cardiovascular system for much longer.
If all this sounds too good to be true, you're correct. I'm glossing over a great deal, including the threat of future pandemics, increased number of deaths of despair, and the widening income gap, all of which threaten to wipe out some of the increases in life expectancy we've seen over the last 100 years. My message is this: You can now survive stress for longer than ever in our species' history. Yes, stress will kill you. Until then, stay vigilant to maintain and expand on the gains that we've made. Future generations may have the luxury of being stressed for even longer!
Mortality Statistics, 1923. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/vsushistorical/mortstatsh_1923.pdf
Xu JQ, Murphy SL, Kochanek KD, Arias E. Mortality in the United States, 2021. NCHS Data Brief, no 456. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2022. DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.15620/cdc:122516.