The Stress That Accelerates Aging
By Michèle Sirois, collaborator at the Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal (geriatric institute) and host of the Ère Libre show on MAtv
In Quebec, approximately 25% of people age 60 and older suffer from varying degrees of anxiety.
Good or bad stress?
What do cholesterol and stress have in common? Like cholesterol, there is “good” stress and “bad” stress.
Good stress helps us react to potential danger, whether real or perceived: coming face to face with a bear, driving in heavy traffic, taking an overseas trip or, for some people, seeing the doctor. This stress is short-lived and the symptoms disappear once the situation has passed.
Bad stress sticks around, following us day and night. Constantly worrying becomes a way of life. This kind of stress invades our brain, sending messages to the adrenal glands, which produce large amounts of cortisol in response.
The excess cortisol causes imbalances in the body, leading to problems sleeping, loss of appetite, difficulty concentrating, memory problems and more.
If stress becomes chronic, it can lead to anxiety disorders and even depression. It’s no surprise that it increases the risk of developing cardiorespiratory diseases and certain cancers. In short, stress makes us age more quickly!
At one of the Université de Montréal’s Les belles soirées talks, clinical psychologist and researcher Dr. Sébastien Grenier1 explained how stress causes cells to age prematurely.
Chronological age versus biological age
In a Danish study, researchers examined 913 pairs of identical twins. They noted that in many cases, one of the twins looked younger than the other. While they were both born on the same date (chronological age), they didn’t have the same biological age (cell age). When they delved deeper, the researchers discovered that the younger-looking twin had longer telomeres. They concluded that telomere length is closely tied to biological age.
No need to get out your ruler! Telomeres are much too small to be seen with the naked eye. They are tiny structures at the end of our chromosomes. While microscopic, they play a vital role in keeping our cells working properly. We now know that the shorter our telomeres, the more our cells show signs of age, making us more susceptible to aging-related illnesses.
Why would twins with identical DNA have telomeres of different lengths? Even if much of what determines telomere length is hereditary, Dr. Grenier informed us that these small strands are also sensitive to tobacco and marijuana use, lack of sleep, air pollution and most of all, stress.
Elements of stress
Aging can bring its share of stressful situations: illness, losing our mobility, losing a loved one, chronic pain, isolation, etc. These contain all the elements of stress: lack of control, unpredictability, newness and threats to our self-esteem.
After reading about the ravages of stress, you’re probably feeling a little stressed yourself! Following are Dr. Grenier’s tips on managing stress and preventing the premature shortening of our precious telomeres.
What can you do to slow down aging?
First, identify what is causing you stress. Is it a move, an illness, a conflict with a loved one? Try calming your stress by finding solutions and, most importantly, regaining control of the situation.
- Try adopting a positive attitude. Laugh and downplay the seriousness of situations. Studies show that people who see the glass as half full have longer telomeres.
- Treat yourself as kindly as you would a dear friend.
- Exercise, do yoga, meditate. A study has shown that when exposed to the same stress, perceived in the same manner, people who exercise have longer telomeres than people who are sedentary.
- Get plenty of sleep and eat healthy.
- Get help and support.
Reduce your stress remotely
Many of us are unaware of the resources at our disposal or hesitate to seek help. It can be difficult to get access to a psychologist in Quebec’s public health system and private consultations can be too costly for some. Good news! Dr. Grenier announced that his study laboratory is looking for participants. Those selected would take part in a guided self-treatment aiming to help them manage their worries.
The program takes place at home. No travel or home visits are required.
Participants will have short texts to read on how to manage their anxiety. Psychologists will offer short telephone sessions every week to accompany each participant.
For more information about the study and to apply, contact Mélanie Fournel at 514-340-3540, ext. 4788. The program is open to people ages 60 and older who live in Quebec.
Now you know how to keep your telomeres the optimal length!
(1) Dr. Sébastien Grenier is a clinical psychologist specializing in assessing and treating anxiety and related disorders (including depression) using cognitive behavioural therapy. He is also a researcher and director of the LEADER laboratory (Laboratoire d'Étude sur l'Anxiété et la Dépression gériatrique) at the Institut universitaire de gériatrie de Montréal’s research centre.