The mental cost of trauma

Social stress ages your immune system, study finds

Immune aging can lead to cancer, heart disease and other age-related health conditions and reduce the effectiveness of vaccines, such as the one for Covid-19, said lead author Eric Klopack, a postdoctoral fellow at the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology in New York. the University of Southern California.

“People with higher stress scores had immune profiles that seemed higher, with lower percentages of new disease fighters and higher percentages of worn-out T cells,” Klopack said.

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

In addition to finding that people who reported higher levels of stress had more zombie cells, Klopack and his team found that they also had fewer “naive” T cells, which are the fresh, young cells needed to take on new invaders.

“This article adds to the findings that psychological stress, on the one hand, and well-being and resources, on the other hand, are associated with immunological aging,” said clinical psychologist Suzanne Segerstrom, who was not involved in the study. .

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

poor health behaviors

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

People in the study were asked questions about their levels of social stress, which included “stressful life events, chronic stress, everyday discrimination and lifetime discrimination,” Klopack said. His responses were then compared to the levels of T cells found in his blood tests.

“This is the first time that detailed information on immune cells has been collected in a large national survey,” Klopack said. “We found that older adults with low proportions of na├»ve cells and high proportions of older T cells have an older immune system.”

T cells are activated by dendritic cells to mount an immune response.

The study found that the association between stressful life events and fewer naive T cells remained strong even after controlling for education, smoking, drinking, weight, and race/ethnicity, Klopack said.

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

That finding indicates that how much our immune system ages when we’re stressed is within our control, Klopack said.

How stress affects the brain

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

“The most common stressors are those that operate chronically, often at a low level, and cause us to behave in a certain way. For example, being “stressed” can cause anxiety or depression, losing sleep at night , eating comfort foods and taking in more calories than our bodies need, and smoking or drinking alcohol excessively,” wrote renowned neuroendocrinologist Bruce McEwen in a 2017 review of 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 modified by stress hormones such as cortisol, passed away in 2020 after 54 years of research in neuroendocrinology at Rockefeller University in New York City.

“Being ‘stressed’ can also cause us to stop seeing friends, take time off from work, or reduce our participation in regular physical activity when, for example, we sit in front of a computer and try to get outside. from under the burden of too much to do,” McEwen wrote.

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 your belly with air to the count of six will ensure that you are breathing deeply. Moving your body as if in slow motion is another way to activate that calming reflex, experts say.
Interrupt your stressful and anxious thinking 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 it tends to focus more on the present than the past and is usually a short-term treatment, experts say.
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