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People show remarkably different rates of aging. Although in many cases the rate is influenced by genetic and environmental factors, research is now pointing to stress as the major cause of aging. Reducing stress can help in staying younger for longer.

The process of getting old is inevitable; it happens to us all whether we like it or not. Wrinkles, grey hair, saggy skin, a receding hairline, weight gain, and lack of physical energy are among the most common complaints when it comes to getting old.

Can this process of aging be reversed? It is possible to delay, or even stop, the process of aging taking a hold of our bodies?
 

The Elderly Population Is Very Heterogeneous

As we go through life and become older, we become physically less and less like our peers. Young children and babies are expected to achieve certain milestones and can therefore be physically compared more easily. However, a group of 70 year old people will show far more physical differences than similarities. This is because fundamentally, the process of aging is unique to each and every one of us. It is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. As babies, life has not had enough time to influence our ways physically so differences between peers are minimal, but by the time we reach the age of 70, several decades of life have allowed habits and lifestyle choices to set in that will have an impact on our health, and ultimately the aging process, both positively and negatively.

Major Causes Of Rapid Aging

According to the World Health Organization, the top three reasons for rapid onset of aging are poor diet, lack of physical activity and exposure to health risks, such as cigarette smoke, alcohol and other toxic substances. All three of these can lead to non-communicable diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, the result of which ultimately leads to aging and premature death. Yet all three of these are self-inflicted, therefore by this reasoning, it is logical to conclude that it must be possible to delay the onset of aging by changing our habits and lifestyle.

It has been repeatedly reported by scientists that stress is the new ticking aging time bomb — it is so powerful and so dangerous to us that it can age us rapidly and prematurely at a rate that wouldn't seem possible until it actually happens. Stress is often the underlying cause of poor diet and lack of physical activity. In addition, stress is usually given as the reason why one might ‘need’ a cigarette or a drink.

A New Molecular Mechanism Behind Stress-Related Aging?

Nevertheless, the exact mechanism by which stress takes a hold of the body and physically ages it is largely still unknown, however it does have an impact on the rate of cellular aging. New research data point to a particular mechanism in our cells that may be behind stress and stress-related aging processes. Every chromosome in the body is protected by repetitive regions of DNA known as telomeres. These telomeres act in the same way as the plastic tip on the end of a shoelace and prevent the chromosome from becoming frayed and damaged. As we age, our cells divide via mitosis, with the telomeres shorten in length after each division. This process links telomeres directly to the process of aging.

Shortening Of Telomeres Appears To Be One Of The Major Mechanisms Behind Aging

The gradual process of shortening of telomeres acts like a "genetic time clock". As the telomeres reach critically short lengths, the cells will no longer be protected and cease to function. This is the reason why we experience memory loss, for example, as we become older; the cells in the brain are gradually ceasing to function as the length of the telomeres become shorter and shorter.

Telomeres And Stress

The chief enemy of telomeres is stress. As cells divide over time, if telomeres are damaged by external factors such as stress, they become inaccurate markers of biological aging. This may lead to early onset of grey hair, wrinkly skin and memory loss. The shorter the telomeres, the less protected the DNA and the quicker the onset of aging.

The erosion of telomeres can be halted by reducing stress, and they can also be stimulated to grow again, which actually reverses the process of aging. Elizabeth Blackburn and colleagues won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 2009 for their work in discovering the enzyme that lengthens telomeres, called telomerase. Telomerase allows for the replacement of telomeres, therefore keeping cell’s chromosomes protected for longer, delaying the process of aging and cell death. Active telomerase is one of the factors why “immortal” cells such as cancer cells can keep dividing indefinitely.

Avoid "Bad" Stress To Delay Aging

So in simple terms, we all need to avoid stress. But is that really achievable? Don't some people thrive on stress and almost "need" stress in order to achieve in their chosen careers and life ambitions?

There is such a thing as "good stress" and "bad stress". Good stress is short-lived; revising for a big exam, building up to the exam itself and then sitting the exam and experiencing the relief when it is all over. Bad stress is stress that is allowed to continue over a significant period of time, and it’s how we respond to this that could have a powerful bearing on our physically well-being and the process of aging. Do you sit in traffic and get mad at how late you are going to be for that meeting, or do you sit back and turn the music up in the car and let the whole situation wash over you since you can’t change the traffic situation anyway? This mental mindset has a remarkable effect on the levels of stress hormones swimming around our bloodstream and ultimately the rate at which those telomeres are being eroded.

Without doubt, scientists will soon be able to determine the rate of aging by performing a simple blood test, and from that determine which diseases we may be susceptible to later in life an attempt to better prepare us for the process of growing old. 

However, on the contrary, other scientists believe that the key to reversing the process of aging lies in simply taking steps to reduce the amount of stress in our daily lives. Forget Botox, facelifts, supplements and expensive creams, research is now pointing to stress as the most serious of our manageable illnesses. The most powerful tool in the battle to look younger is simply comes down to how we live and manage our day-to-day life.

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  • Finkel T and Holbrook NJ, 2000, Oxidants, oxidative stress and the biology of ageing. Nature, 408, 239-247
  • Passarge, Eberhard, 2007, Color Atlas of Genetics
  • Pellatt AJ et al, 2012, Genetic and lifestyle influence on telomere length and subsequent risk of colon cancer in a case control study. Int J Mol Epidemiol Genet., 3(3), 184-194
  • Epel ES et al, 2010, Dynamics of telomerase activity in response to acute psychological stress. Brain, Behaviour and Immunity, 24(4), 531-539.
  • Photo courtesy of francisco_osorio via Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/francisco_osorio/8424430083
  • Photo courtesy of madstreetz via Flickr: www.flickr.com/photos/11089605@N08/1552172294

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