When it comes to getting older there’s no magic potion to turn back the hands of time on our biological clocks. So why do some of us ‘age well’ and others not? Longevity isn’t all about genetics and luck, it’s also heavily influenced by the life we lead on a day-to-day basis – including how we manage stress. High stress levels can accelerate the ageing process and cause you to look and feel beyond your years. Read on to discover what stress is, why it ages us and, more importantly, what you can do to combat stress and age well!
Ageing: The Circle of Life
The ageing process goes way deeper than wrinkles; underneath the aesthetic signs of getting older lies a whole host of biological processes that are essentially working against our bodies.
Ageing is a natural process in which molecular and cellular damage accumulate over time, resulting in disease and ultimately, death. It’s all part of the evolutionary process that aims to kill us off once we are too old to reproduce or look after our young! Sounds grim but this is all for a good cause, to make way for the younger generation and preserve the human population. We forgive you nature!
Age Is Just a Number!
That’s the science-y bit out of the way! So, why doesn’t ageing look and feel the same for all of us? Well, what we do know is that the biological changes which define ageing are only loosely associated with our actual age. So, there are many other factors at play accelerating and decelerating these processes. That’s why you can see Doris up the road cycling to the shops in her 90s, but you’ll see other people struggling to get around with Zimmer frames at the same age – and hear of others who didn’t make it to 90 at all!
In a nutshell, ageing is something which is happening to all of us, all the time. The passage of time is something out of our control, but what we do with our time isn’t. Following a healthy lifestyle that optimises your overall wellbeing is the best chance you have to age well and combat the signs of ageing – that includes reducing your stress levels.
Working Women: A Breeding Ground for Stress
Recent years have seen a surge in stress levels, coinciding with ever-busier lifestyles. Over the past 40 years there’s been a steady rise in the proportion of women in employment in the UK, up from 57% in 1975 to a massive of 78% in 2017. A celebratory statistic for sure, but with a rise in career success comes a rise in everyday stress. Research has found that work is now the most stressful factor in people’s lives, with 1 in 3 of us finding work stressful.
Whether it’s work, family, finances or relationships – there’ll always be something around the corner just waiting in the side-lines to spike our stress levels! How we manage and minimise this stress is key to reducing the impact is has on our overall health and wellbeing, as well as how fast we age.
Five Ways Chronic Stress Accelerates the Ageing Process
The body’s response to pressurised situations is to release a surge of stress hormones which trigger physiological changes and initiate the ‘fight or flight’ response. This was really useful for our ancestors – who needed a rush of adrenaline and cortisol to fight off wild animals every now and then, but in the modern world it can be quite inhibiting!
Overreacting to stressors that aren’t in fact life-threatening causes chronic activation of this innate stress response. Eventually, the cumulative effect of everyday stresses negatively impacts on both physical and psychological wellbeing, impairing health and accelerating the ageing process. Let’s take a closer look.
- Stress Brings out the Visible Signs of Ageing
An amazing skill we have is the ability to guess (roughly!) how old someone is just by looking at them. That’s because there are so many visible signs of ageing – wrinkles, sagging skin, sunken eyes, loss of hair – the list goes on. Each of these is brought on by ageing but worsened by stress.
As humans our appearance is very much an advertisement of our health, which is why when our health isn’t up to scratch it begins to show in our aesthetics – a clever mechanism to warn away potential suitors if all is not well! Just as poor diet presents as weight gain, lack of sleep as baggy eyes and so on, there are many ways in which stress can blemish our beauty. Let’s take a look at how stress contributes to the physical signs of ageing:
- Skin – Research has shown that stress hormones shorten something called ‘telomeres’. Telomeres are present in DNA to support cell division and protect genetic data but as we age, they get shorter and so less effective at this job. One study found that women with the highest levels of stress had telomeres shorter on average by the equivalent of one decade of ageing compared to women who reported less stress. The impact of stress of cellular ageing contributes to the wrinkles, saggy skin and weak muscles that make an appearance as we get older.
- Hair – High stress levels have been linked with preventing growth or hair, affecting the strength of hair and even causing hair loss. Stress can cause inflammation that damages hair and can also stop hair from growing altogether in extreme cases. One study found that the severity of hair loss caused by chronic stress was comparable with that caused by severe conditions, such as alopecia and starvation.
- Weight Gain – Gaining weight as we age is a common problem and one that high stress levels can worsen. Cortisol, a stress hormone, has been shown to increase appetite and make us more susceptible to cravings – hence comfort eating! Aside from the short-term effects of stress on appetite, research has shown that chronic stress is a prominent predictor for long-term weight gain. One study found that high stress was a predictor for major weight gain over six years and in some cases over as much as fifteen years!
- Stress Messes with the Mind
Aside from what we can see in the mirror, there are many effects ageing has on the mind. We now know that elevated stress over a long period of time has been shown to have some worrying effects on the brain, mimicking and accelerating the effects of ageing. Let’s explore.
- Memory Loss – One of the most common cognitive signs of ageing is memory loss, something which happens naturally as the brain ages and its cells slowly die off. Stress causes the same physiological changes in the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for memory) that we see with ageing. Studies have also found that high circulating levels of stress hormones can be the root cause of memory disorders. So, reducing your stress levels is one way to minimise age-related memory loss.
- Cognitive decline – Stress contributes to the development of neurodegenerative disorders, conditions which slowly damage and kill neurons in the brain. We all experience cognitive decline as we get older, but prolonged stress could worsen this and increase the risk of things like Alzheimer’s Disease, Parkinson’s and Dementia.
- Loss of productivity – A massive part of learning is memory, so it makes sense that as this declines so does our ability to learn. Feeling stressed can leave you mentally exhausted, and your brain less able to think, reason and focus. That’s why stress is such a major contributor to brain fog, it gets in the way of logical thinking and puts a spanner in the cogs of thought processing – making it harder to learn in the same way that ageing does.
- Stress can Mess with your Mood
Studies have found that getting older is intrinsically linked with being at greater risk of low mood – and that high stress levels increase this risk further. Putting up with chronic stress when you’re younger could mimic the effect of the ageing brain and negatively impact your mood and emotional state in the same way. Let’s take a closer look at the link between stress and mood.
- Mood Disorders – Chronic stress is a predictor for many mood disorders. As women, we are more susceptible to developing a mood disorder in the first place, so controlling how we manage stress levels is a proactive step in maintaining mental health and reducing the overall risk.
- Emotion – Being stressed can create feelings of anger, sadness, worry and irritability. Over time these feelings can accumulate and become overwhelming, increasing the risk of conditions such as anxiety and depression. Emotional changes brought on by stress can make a person very difficult to be around, often affecting their relationships with others as a result.
- Behaviour – Being overwhelmed by stress can affect our decision-making process and cause us to act in ways which we wouldn’t usually; over or undereating, social withdrawal, using harmful substances or having angry outbursts. This goes back to how stress affects the mind – making it harder to plan, rationalise and make decisions.
- Stress causes Hormonal Imbalances
The effect of stress on hormonal activity is extremely important for women, whose hormones can dictate wider health outcomes such as fertility and the risk of osteoporosis and breast cancer. Stress releases hormones which interfere with our usual hormones to create an imbalance4, in extreme cases this can accelerate the effect of ageing on the reproductive system. Here’s how.
- Reducing the Likelihood of Conception – Studies have found that women with high levels of alpha-amylase (an enzyme linked to high levels of stress hormones) have a more difficult time getting pregnant. Women with the highest concentration of alpha-amyase were 12% less likely to conceive than women with the lowest concentration.
- Causing Irregular Periods – Stress hormones can throw your menstrual cycle out of sync and cause late, irregular and even missed periods. In extreme cases, chronic stress can cause periods to stop altogether. Experts think that this happens when stress is so severe it sets off alarm bells telling the body not to reproduce as whatever is causing the stress signals danger for the prospective baby.
- Meddling with the Menopause – If stress plays a big part in the hormonal balance of women it makes sense that it would influence the menopause, which happens when oestrogen levels decline with age. Before the menopause (perimenopause), stress can worsen vasomotor symptoms like sleep disturbance and hot flushes. Some people also believe that stress can contribute to early menopause, but research up until now has been inconclusive.
- Stress Can Get in the Way of your Sex Life
When stress really takes a hold, it can become less and less of a priority to maintain an active sex life. For most women sexual relationships are maintained by emotional, physical and hormonal health – all of which are affected by chronic stress. Just as ageing affects the ability to have and enjoy sex, so can chronic stress. Let’s find out how.
- Loss of Libido – Stress and the fatigue it comes with can take a toll on your libido, or natural sex drive. Studies have found that high levels of cortisol (that pesky stress hormone mentioned earlier) can interfere with sexual arousal and performance. We now know that it is both psychological and hormonal factors which lower levels of sexual arousal in women with chronic stress.
- Poor Body Image – The effect of stress on mood and emotion can cause us to think negatively about ourselves, feeling less attractive than we would normally. Feeling unattractive and lacking confidence are major obstacles to enjoying time in the bedroom. What’s more, declining the opportunity to have sex can cause your partner to have their own negative self-perceptions and so the cycle continues.
- The “Not Tonight, I’m too tired” Effect – Stress is known to be a key player in sleep disturbance, with chronic stress and fatigue going hand-in-hand. Being stressed can rob you of the energy and stamina you require to maintain a healthy sex life. So, when stress spikes, it’s often the case that your only desire to get between the sheets is for some much needed shut-eye!
So there we have it, an interesting insight into the inner workings of stress! We will all experience stress in our lives and we are all ageing – there’s nothing we can do about either of those facts! What we can do is actively work to lower our stress levels and reduce the risk of chronic stress. It’s this chronic stress which over-activates the stress response and causes all of the negative impacts on health; accelerating the ageing process. As busy women we have a duty to ourselves to manage our stress, reward ourselves and take some time out when things are getting too much. Doing so will help us to age in tune with our body clocks and look and feel great well into later life.