Anxiety Can Speed Aging
Angst and worry make you age faster.
Posted Sep 27, 2015
Almost all of us seniors worry about our health. Will we have a heart attack or stroke? Will we get cancer or Alzheimer's Disease? Will we become invalid and need a nursing home? Will we go out with boots on or slippers on?
Then too, many seniors worry about finances. Will savings last until death? Will we become wards of the state or a burden to our children?
We worry about our children? Did we do the best we could in raising them? Will they suffer as they age? And our grandchildren: it seems they will not have the bright future we had at their age. They are growing up amid moral and cultural decline. Their country and government is becoming dysfunctional. The world teeters on the edge of chaos.
As if these worries are not enough, there is now evidence that anxiety as such can speed our own aging. A study just reported out of the Netherlands examined a cardinal sign of aging, shorter telomere length in chromosomes, in 2300 people with and without anxiety disorders. The subjects were relatively young, averaging 41.7 years. The anxiety group had shorter telomeres, proportional to the degree of their anxiety scores.
Less shortening was observed in patients who had long recovered from their anxiety. Maybe telomere shortening is reversible by eliminating the anxiety and stress. Of course some other undiscovered factors may exist that promote psychological recovery and protect telomeres in an independent way.
The anxiety-telomere correlation held up, even after accounting for other factors that are associated with shorter telomeres (smoking, heavy drinking, abnormal weight, and a number of specific diseases). The projected shortening of life ranged from 3.5 to 8 years, depending on the specific kind of anxiety. The underlying problem is probably excessive release of cortisol, oxidative stress, and inflammatory cytokines, all of which are associated with shorter telomeres.
Another study that tracked middle-aged adults found that people who felt socially isolated had over 200 genes that were expressed differently from socially secure people. Many of the genes that were turned on were involved in promoting inflammation, while many genes that were involved in protective immune responses were poorly expressed. Similar findings have been reported for other kinds of stresses, such as abuse as a child, poverty, or rejection by close friends. These kinds of gene expression changes make people more susceptible to diseases. I suspect that this even applies to cancer. Over the years, I have been stunned by learning of so many people coming down with cancer almost immediately after an intense stressful experience.
Even young people are not resistant to stress. Studies show that students have poor immune function at examination times. Studies show that chronic work stress is associated with higher incidence of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, depression, and other medical problems.
We all have access to coping skills that can reverse stress-induced sickness. For example, inflammatory gene expression was reduced in a group of 200 women who underwent a 10-week stress-management course. Exercise can reduce anxiety and depression, as well as improve general health. Healthy diets help. We can get engaged more with others and with activities that help take us outside of ourselves. Social isolation is a common source of stress for seniors. We can find some inner peace through yoga and meditation.
Most of all, we can find new purpose for our life as we discover that age has made our old purposes untenable. We should focus on a present purpose for our life rather than on all the things we should have done or cannot undo. No one gets to re-live the past, but everyone can influence their own future.
Most useful is to think and pray more deeply about our religious convictions. Communist Karl Marx called religion the "opiate of the masses." He meant this despairingly, but religious faith does relieve anxiety and emotional pain. That is a good thing. This is an imperfect world, but the burden of saving the world is not on our shoulders. It is o.k. to do what we can even when that is not enough. We can be forgiven our sins and failures. Accept that the fate of those we love is not under our control, nor is much of the future. We can pray for strength to endure and believe it will come. We can believe that the world's problems and dysfunctions are in God's hands and that He works for the best for us.
Worry and anxiety are not in our best interests. Rejoice in the extra years of happiness that a stress-free life can bring.
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Cossins, Danile. (2015). Stress fractures. The Scientist. January. p. 33-38.
Verhoeven, J. F. et al. (2015) Anxiety disorders and accelerated cellular ageing.The British Journal of Psychiatry January 2015, DOI: 10.1192/bjp.bp.114.151027
Warren, Rick. 2002. The Purpose Driven Life. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan.