New study finds stress has ‘strong effect in accelerating immune ageing’

Jul 05, 2022
Study finds stress ages the immune system. Source: Getty

It’s no surprise that stress has a physical effect on the body. Have you ever been put under so much pressure you begin to feel run down? Perhaps you’ve worried yourself sick over a situation out of your control or faced discrimination that made you nauseous.

New research conducted by the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, has found that stress “accelerates” ageing of the immune system, known as immunosenescence which weakens the body’s immune system, making people more susceptible to illness and disease.

Immunosenescence is a natural part of ageing, however, the study found its early-onset is linked to older white blood cells continuing circulation leaving  “too few fresh, ‘naïve’ white blood cells ready to take on new invaders”.

Not only are people with an aged immune system more at risk of cancer, but are also faced with an increased risk of “cardiovascular disease, increased risk of pneumonia, reduced efficacy of vaccines and organ system ageing”.

Postdoctoral scholar in the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology and lead study author, Eric Klopack said the research could help explain differences in age-related health.

“As the world’s population of older adults increases, understanding disparities in age-related health is essential. Age-related changes in the immune system play a critical role in declining health,” Klopack said.

“This study helps clarify mechanisms involved in accelerated immune aging.”

The study involved an assessment of 5,744 adults over the age of 50 who answered questions related to encounters with social stress, including stressful life events, chronic stress, everyday discrimination and lifetime discrimination. Blood samples were then assessed to examine the participant’s T-cells, the white blood cells associated with fighting off illness.

“As expected, people with higher stress scores had older-seeming immune profiles, with lower percentages of fresh disease fighters and higher percentages of worn-out white blood cells. The association between stressful life events and fewer ready-to-respond, or naive, T cells remained strong even after controlling for education, smoking, drinking, BMI and race or ethnicity,” the University said in a statement.

The research also found a potential means to control stress-related immune issues, with Klopack saying results found a link between stress and poor diet and exercise.

While stress is not as easily controlled, the study’s results found that improving diet and increasing exercise could potentially offset the ageing of the immune system linked to stress.

“In this study, after statistically controlling for poor diet and low exercise, the connection between stress and accelerated immune aging wasn’t as strong,” he said.

“What this means is people who experience more stress tend to have poorer diet and exercise habits, partly explaining why they have more accelerated immune aging.”


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