How many times have we heard that “stress is the invisible enemy”? And most of us have felt it on our skin on more than one occasion. We’ve all been through highly stressful situations which made us experience digestive issues, recurrent headaches and difficulties sleeping.
Now, the University of Southern California has published a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which shows how damaging stress can be for our immune system, actually making it age faster and exposing us to serious illness.
While a weakened immune system is the natural result of the aging process, the study showed that prolonged exposure to stress can lead to the premature aging of our immune responses against threats like chronic inflammation and cancer. Usnews interviewed Eric Klopack, the author of the study, who stated that “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.”
So, how is our immune system affected by stress?
As we get older, the strength of our immune system begins to decline. This is a natural process, known under the name immunosenescence. However, very often in recent years, the effects of this process have been noticed in younger individuals, who should typically have a stronger immune profile. This translates to a high number of depleted white blood cells that are no longer replaced by other, new cells, also known as “naïve” white blood cells.
Therefore, researchers went on to determine whether there is a connection between exposure to constant stress and the decline in the immune system. For this, they analyzed questionnaire responses and blood samples from 5744 adults above the age of 50. The survey evaluated each of the participants’ experience with “social stress, including stressful life events, chronic stress, everyday discrimination and lifetime discrimination.” And the results were as expected. People with the most aged immune profiles were those who obtained the highest stress scores during the study.
The conclusions are, therefore, pretty straightforward, revealing that constant exposure to stress and the inability to handle it properly will definitely have an impact on the premature decline of the immune system.