Social stress ages your immune system, study finds

Immune aging can lead to cancer, heart disease and other age-related health problems and reduce the effectiveness of vaccines, such as Covid-19, said lead author Eric Klopack, postdoctoral researcher at the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology at the University of Southern California.

“People with higher stress scores had older immune profiles, with lower percentages of fresh disease fighters and higher percentages of spent T cells,” Klopack said.

T cells are among the body’s most important defenders, performing several key functions. “Killer” T cells can directly eliminate virus-infected cells and cancer cells, and help eliminate so-called “zombie” cells, senescent cells that no longer divide but refuse to die.

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 “naïve” T cells, which are the young, fresh cells needed to cope. new invaders.

“This article adds to 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 has no not participated in the study.

Segerstrom, a professor of developmental, social and health psychology at the University of Kentucky at Lexington, has studied the link 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.

Bad health behaviors

Klopack’s study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, analyzed blood biomarkers from 5,744 adults over the age of 50 collected as part of the Health and Retirement Study, a nationwide study long-term on economic, health, marital and family stresses. among older Americans.

People in the study were asked about their level of social stress, which included “stressful life events, chronic stress, daily discrimination and lifelong discrimination,” Klopack said. Their responses were then compared to the levels of T cells found in their blood tests.

“This is the first time detailed information about immune cells has been collected in a large national survey,” Klopack said. “We found that older adults with low proportions of naïve cells and high proportions of older T cells have older immune systems.”

T lymphocytes are activated by dendritic cells to carry out an immune response.

The study found that the association between stressful life events and fewer naïve T cells remained strong even after controlling for education, smoking, alcohol consumption, weight, and race or origin. ethnicity, Klopack said.

However, when poor diet and lack of exercise were taken into account, part of the link between social stress levels and an aging immune system disappeared.

This discovery indicates that the aging of our immune system when we are stressed is under our control, Klopack said.

How stress affects the brain

As stress hormones flood the body, neural circuits in the brain change, affecting our ability to think and make decisions, experts say. Anxiety increases and mood may change. All of these neurological changes impact the entire body, including our autonomic, metabolic, and immune systems.

“The most common stressors are those that are chronically functioning, often at a low level, and cause us to behave in certain ways. For example, being ‘stressed out’ can make us feel anxious and/or depressed, lose sleep at night, eating comfort foods and consuming more calories than our bodies need, and smoking or drinking alcohol excessively,” famous neuroendocrinologist Bruce McEwen wrote in a study of 2017 on the impact of stress on the brain.
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McEwen, who made the landmark discovery in 1968 that the brain’s hippocampus can be altered by stress hormones like cortisol, died in 2020 after 54 years of neuroendocrinology research at Rockefeller University in New York.

“Being ‘stressed’ can also cause us to neglect seeing friends, or taking time off from our work, or reducing our engagement in regular physical activity as, for example, we sit at a computer and try to get out. from under the burden of too much to do,” McEwen wrote.

What to do

There are ways to stop stress in its tracks. Deep breathing speeds up our parasympathetic nervous system, the opposite of “flight or fight” response. Filling the belly with air up to six will ensure that you breathe deeply. Moving your body like it’s in slow motion is another way to trigger this soothing 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 thinking, eating and sleeping disorders, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and more. This practice tends to focus more on the present than the past, and is generally a shorter-term treatment, experts say.
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