Written by Elizabeth Agnvall, from AARP Bulletin, November 2014
Scientists have long known that stress complicates a host of health problems. Now they are discovering that chronic stress — a mainstay of modern life — doesn’t merely exacerbate disease, it actually can cause it.
“We are just beginning to understand the ways that stress influences a wide range of diseases of aging, including heart disease, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and certain types of disability, even early death,” says Sheldon Cohen, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh who has been at the forefront of stress research for 30 years.
Everyone experiences stress, of course, but it’s particularly prevalent among adults over 50. In a recent Harvard University-Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-NPR poll, about a quarter of 2,500 participants said they’d experienced “a great deal” of stress in the last month. Another poll, conducted in August by AARP, found 37 percent of adults over 50 experienced a major stressful life event in the past year, such as the death of a family member, chronic illness or a job loss.
Certainly, many people who are stressed end up eating, drinking and smoking more, and sleeping and exercising less — tendencies that have obvious negative consequences for our health. But scientists are discovering a much more nuanced picture, says Bruce McEwen, a neuroscientist at Rockefeller University in New York and the author of The End of Stress as We Know It.
The human body reacts to stress by first pumping adrenaline and then cortisol into the bloodstream to focus the mind and body for immediate action — a response that has ensured our survival over the millennia. The adrenaline rush from the initial stress response can occasionally pose health risks, according to Cohen, but the more significant hazard is the subsequent release of cortisol. Generally considered a bad stress hormone, cortisol does serve many important functions — one of which is turning off inflammation. But when chronic stress exposes the body to a relentless stream of cortisol, as happens when stress is constant, cells become desensitized to the hormone, “causing inflammation to go wild,” Cohen says. Long-term chronic inflammation damages blood vessels and brain cells, leads to insulin resistance (a precursor to diabetes) and promotes painful joint diseases.
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