Stress makes life’s clock tick faster – and how to slow it down

Chronic stress accelerates the body’s epigenetic clock, but emotional regulation and self-control can slow that process down.

In new research, a team from Yale has used the DNA methylation GrimAge clock to investigate the extent to which chronic stress accelerates our biological clocks and whether there are ways to slow aging down and extend both lifespan and healthspan.

Longevity.Technology: Nutrition, genetics, lifestyle and diseases all affect biological age, and research has refined ways to pin-point biomarkers – measurable biological characteristics – that can reveal the secret of a person biological age, rather than just what number their last birthday celebrated. Psychomarkers, psychological markers, can also measure aging. One of the most promising biomarkers identified lies in epigenetics, the study of phenotypic changes to gene expression.

According to this new research, which has been published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, stress can make life’s clock tick faster – but the news isn’t all bad, as individuals can use emotion regulation and self-control to help manage the effects.

Rajita Sinha, the Foundations Fund Professor of Psychiatry at Yale, a professor of neuroscience and professor at the Yale Child Study Center, and one of the authors of the study, is a stress expert, having spend many years studying stress and the numerous harmful effects it can have on our health, both mental and physical.

Prolonged stress has been shown to increase the risk of heart disease, addiction, mood disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as influencing metabolism and accelerating obesity-related disorders such as diabetes. Stress also causes trouble for our wellbeing, hampering our ability to regulate our emotions and reducing our ability to think clearly.

A Yale team led by Sinha and Zachary Harvanek, a resident in the Yale Department of Psychiatry, wanted to explore whether stress can accelerate aging in a population that is relatively young and in good health.

The researchers studied the blood of 444 people, aged 19 to 50, evaluating the samples to determine age-related chemical changes captured by GrimAge, as well as other markers of health. A questionnaire answered by the participants shed light on their stress levels as well as their psychological resilience.

After demographic and behavioural factors such as smoking, body mass index, race and income had been accounted for, the researchers found that those who scored high on measures related to chronic stress also exhibited accelerated aging markers and physiological changes such as increased insulin resistance [1].

However, stress didn’t affect all the subjects in the same way; subjects with high scores for two psychological resilience measures – emotion regulation and self-control – demonstrated more resilience to the effects of stress on aging and insulin resistance, respectively.

“These results support the popular notion that stress makes us age faster,” Harvanek said, “but they also suggest a promising way to possibly minimize these adverse consequences of stress through strengthening emotion regulation and self-control [2].”

It would seem as if the more psychologically resilient the subject, the higher the likelihood that they could expect to live a longer and healthier life, explained Harvanek.

“We all like to feel like we have some agency over our fate,” Sinha added. “So it is a cool thing to reinforce in people’s minds that we should make an investment in our psychological health [2].”