Social stressors such as racism, discrimination and financial problems can affect the immune system, causing premature aging and a host of other health issues.
As reported by CNN, according to a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, immune aging can lead to cancer, heart disease and reduce the effectiveness of vaccines. Researchers worked with 5,744 adults over the age of 50 and analyzed their blood biomarkers to determine the most common symptoms of social stress in older Americans.
Eric Klopack, the lead author of the study and a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Southern California’s Leonard Davis School of Gerontology, and his team asked participants questions about “stressful life events, chronic stress, everyday discrimination and lifetime discrimination,” he said. The authors of the study then compared the respondents’ answers to levels of T-cells found in their blood tests, according to CNN.
“It’s the first time detailed information about immune cells has been collected in a large national survey,” Klopack said. “We found older adults with low proportions of naive cells and high proportions of older T-cells have a more aged immune system.”
T-cells are part of the immune system that helps protect the body from infection and may eliminate cancer cells. Naive cells are young cells that can fight off bad cells. Zombie (so called because they refuse to leave the body after they stop dividing) cells are dead cells that tend to build up and contribute to chronic inflammation that leads to conditions associated with aging such as osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s disease. T-cells also help clear out zombie cells.
“People with higher stress scores had older-seeming immune profiles, with lower percentages of fresh disease fighters and higher percentages of worn-out T-cells,” Klopack said.
Clinical psychologist Suzanne Segerstrom, who was not involved with the study, told CNN that Klopack’s study supports existing research into stress and aging immune systems. “This paper adds to findings that psychological stress on one hand, and well-being and resources on the other hand, are associated with immunological aging.”
She continued, “In one of our newer studies … older people with more psychological resources had ‘younger’ T cells.”
Klopack’s findings indicate that we can control how much our immune system ages when we are stressed out.
One way stress can be interrupted is with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which experts say eases “depression, anxiety, obsessive thinking, eating and sleep disorders, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder and more,” CNN reports.
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