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4 Types of Stress That May Age Your Immune System

Stressed-out mother with her kids
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Everyone knows that stress can make you feel lousy. But a recent study finds it also can speed up the aging of your immune system, possibly putting you at higher risk for cancer, heart disease and infections like COVID-19.

Researchers at the University of Southern California’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology looked at how a lifetime of exposure to stress might impact the health of the immune system.

Their findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For the study of more than 5,700 people over the age of 50, the researchers analyzed responses to a questionnaire about the participants’ stressful experiences.

The participants also gave blood samples that were analyzed to gauge immune system health.

According to the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology’s report on the study findings:

“As expected, people with higher stress scores had older-seeming immune profiles, with lower percentages of fresh disease fighters and higher percentages of worn-out white blood cells.”

The following four types of stress were cited as culprits for causing the immune system to age more quickly.

Traumatic events

Couple at a funeral
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Tragic events in our lives can leave scars that last a lifetime. From losing a loved one to falling victim to crime, traumatic events trigger stress that can take its toll on our well-being.

Job strain

Woman at computer holding her head.
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Many of us grind away as employees for decades, putting in long hours just to pay the bills. The stress of being chained to our workplace is even worse if we despise our jobs.

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Everyday stressors

Man holding two buckets catching water leaking from ceiling.
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Unfortunately, life itself — sheer existence — can cause us plenty of grief. Financial strain, for example, can cause chronic stress. The list of things to fret about day in and day out is endless.

Alas, the researchers say this type of stress also poses danger to our immune system.

Discrimination

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Prejudice is a fact of daily life for millions of people. Facing discrimination due to your race, identity or even beliefs can take a toll on your well-being.

How to combat stress

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The researchers say their findings might help explain why there are differences in the health outcomes of older people, including how they fare when infected with COVID-19.

Fortunately, you can do a couple of things to help ward off the negative effects of stress, the researchers say.

Both poor diet and lack of exercise have been linked to an acceleration in the shrinkage of a gland known as the thymus, where T-cells — a major component of immunity — reside. As fatty tissue replaces thymus tissue, people tend to produce fewer immune cells.

So, eating better and getting active might help preserve the health of your immune system.

In an article about the study, lead study author Eric Klopack, a postdoctoral scholar in the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, says:

“In this study, after statistically controlling for poor diet and low exercise, the connection between stress and accelerated immune aging wasn’t as strong. What this means is people who experience more stress tend to have poorer diet and exercise habits, partly explaining why they have more accelerated immune aging.”

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