Stress makes your genes age faster, but learning to relax helps you live longer

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — It’s no secret stress has a negative effect on the human body. However, a new study reveals that stress literally makes people age faster at a genetic level. Researchers from Yale discovered that experiencing stress speeds up the chemical changes in a person’s DNA that naturally occur as they age.

Previous studies have found that the “epigenetic clock” every person has is a better predictor of how long someone will live than their actual age. Using one of these genetic clocks, called “GrimAge,” the team examined two questions: Does stress affect the biological clock and are there ways to slow that clock down?

Their findings reveal that although stress makes people age faster, strengthening your emotion regulation and self-control can block out the genetic impact of stress.

The Yale team studied 444 people between the ages of 19 and 50. They donated blood samples which the researchers analyzed using GrimAge as well as other biomarkers that measure a person’s health. The volunteers also completed a questionnaire which measured their levels of stress and how resilient they are to such mental strain.

After accounting for individual differences such as smoking habits, body mass index, race, and income, study authors found that chronic stress continued to accelerate aging. One of the biological side-effects of this was an increased insulin resistance in some participants.

Stress can be a trigger for disease

Continuous stress can lead to a higher risk of heart disease, addiction, mental health disorders, and obesity-related disorders like diabetes. Studies show stress even drains a person’s ability to control their emotions and think clearly.

However, just as people age at a biological level at different speeds, the study finds stress does not affect all people in the same way. Participants with high emotion regulation and self-control scores had more resistance to the effects of stress. They displayed less signs of aging and insulin resistance.

“These results support the popular notion that stress makes us age faster,” says study co-leader Zachary Harvanek in a university release. “But they also suggest a promising way to possibly minimize these adverse consequences of stress through strengthening emotion regulation and self-control.”

Simply put, researchers find that learning how to calm yourself down when under stress will not only make you feel better, but you’ll live longer as well.

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

The study is published in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

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