Stress Might Age the Immune System, New Study Finds

Jun 17, 2022 · 137 comments
Paul (Brooklyn)
Ok, we all agree stress is no good by any definition by anybody. However I believe in the equality of life theory ie in this life or another dimension if you believe in Einstein or in the afterlife if you believe in God, everybody gets an equal amount of good and bad as defined by providence not man. It's the Jim Hendrix/Jack LaLane theory ie Hendrix had wine, women, song and drugs and died at age 27, LaLanne the opposite and died app. 95. The theory states if you don't get enough good, you die later. Stress is bad, however it helps you cope in life and providence will give you good in other areas.
@Paul 'Providence'? Really? 'Providence' is being interjected into an article discussing medical based research evidence. So given the rationale I am attempting to follow, immune stress and poor health outcomes in 'this world', as demonstrated by evidence, is somehow 'balanced out' by better life outcomes in a supernatural 'other world' for which there is no evidence?
Susan (Washington County, N.Y.)
@ Mr. Blisster Thank you for your comments. No one who has not experienced psychological trauma by their own parents can possibly comprehend the irreparable, lifetime damage done. Please continue to hold onto your music and know you have my deepest sympathy and empathy. I wish you peace.
Paul (Philadelphia)
Well known and appears reinvented.
catherine (palm beach gardens, Florida)
I took care of my dad who died 2 years ago of alzheimer's, he was a handful as most are with this terrible disease, I managed to keep him out of a memory care facility at 10k a month, no help from my 5 siblings, I thought I could handle it, I left a full-time job because my mother completely shut down. She is approaching 87 and I'm now i'm managing home health care for her because she refuses to go into assisted living. I'm on my 6th caregiver managing help has been EXTREMELY stressful for me. This is a topic that no one wants to talk about and is a epidemic in america. Most people don't have long term health insurance, caregivers are under paid so you are open to theft, abuse, invasion of privacy ETC. I have to say this has been the most stressful 5 years of my life!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Vin (NYC)
Unplugging is a challenge, giving good or bad habits up, tests one's strength. Forcing one to choose between the two, makes one anger. For who can truly say, what's right, what's wrong. When one feels always right, sometimes. The only solution is mindful practices, between the two, not to get angry. Take the mean road in life, between the two keeping busy, doing what's right for you, before you were told, you're all wrong.
Stephen Rinsler (Arden, NC)
Since “stress” and “aging” in biology are ill-defined terms, I would be skeptical about any study that wasn’t a long-term (40 year?), randomized control with very specific operational definitions. Perhaps when we understand organismic biology a lot better, it would be possible to make sense of such relationships…
@Stephen Rinsler The authors are actually very specific with respect to how aging of immune cells is defined and what constitutes stressors. These are measurable empirical phenomena.
Doreen Meyer (Volcano, CA)
'Might'? Doh. Ask anyone in a high stress job, or anyone experiencing sudden unexpected stress: it affects you profoundly. I retired early when my job (of 45 years) became too stressful for my health (others handled the stress by not fulfilling important job functions - I couldn't do that). Lazy retirement...until the coincidence of extreme high fire danger (several nearby wildfires) threatening my home and (maybe malicious) litigation by an unhapppy HOA member (CA law protects me from liability as an HOA volunteer, but I am 'litigation averse' : it makes me very edgy). Suddenly my usually low blood pressure was haywire, and then an autoimmune disorder - unknown/latent until those stressors - flared, sending me to ER on more than once occasion and causing other health problems. Stress is a killer - and 'recovery' may find us very different people than before the stress, in many ways. We can't avoid all stress, but we do need to take heed of what we can/can't handle, and know when to graciously exit, when to 'fight', when to 'fold'...and how much health we are willing to sacrifice for our causes.
Mr. Blisster (PDX)
Lucky are those born into a loving and supportive family/parents.Abused children live with stress all their lives.
Al M (Norfolk Va)
And it's not just Seniors. The PBS documentary called "Unnatural Causes" lays out the linkage of health to class and to degree of self determination in our lives and to the reality that economics and mental health are inseperable -- . My cortisol levels are as high as my checking account is low. My father died of diabetes and heart disease. My mother died of cancer. My teeth hurt, I itch, and my blood pressure bangs out the realities of poverty powerlessness powerlessness powerlessness I refuse to accept it -- I inhale fear and insecurity I exhale assertiveness, my bad attitude demanding control of what empowers, an odd job here some organizing there every meal a victory every new raised fist another milestone on the road to health -- for all of us So to heck with the bosses, the landlords, the terror of bill collectors and the deadly stress of needless competition!
Matthew Belmonte (Kolkata, India)
This article is a great argument against the tenure-track system in American universities, which, via five or six years of nonstop stress, ages thirtysomethings into midlife.
Steve (US)
@Matthew Belmonte You're lucky if you can get tenure. The majority of university/college faculty are contract faculty who can be fired every year... That's way more stressful.
Al M (Norfolk Va)
As an older full-time spousal caretaker who, after years of over-the-top stress, i can feel the truth of this, not to mention having mast cell activation syndrome and a family history of heart attacks and strokes. As with medicine in general, caretakers like myself receive no added compensation or assistance beyond the private companies which may help simpler cases but do nothing for mental or neuropsychiatric deterioration. Some state offer more than others but what is needed is a national healthcare system -- and that requires political leadership not bound by corporate fealty.
Susan (Washington County, N.Y.)
Stress does not necessarily occur as a result of any of the behaviors cited in Ms. Seo’s article. By the same token, changing these behaviors and/or trying new ones will not alleviate stress in every (or any) situation. My stress has been lifelong. It is the result of an unhappy lottery, and one over which I had no control: my parents. Their legacy to myself and my siblings is a vicious over-anxious disorder. My parents were of the generation who believed there was nothing more shameful than a divorce. They were in error: catastrophically so. The result of their “death before divorce” decision manifests itself in misery every single day for their offspring: a total inability to accept love, an ulcer, panic attacks, and a grinding,never-ending,nameless fear. There is not a day on this earth when I do not bitterly regret their choice, and the resulting devastation to children. “There is no limit to suffering human beings have been wiling to inflict on others, no matter how innocent, no matter how young, and no matter how old.”
Mr. Blisster (PDX)
@Susan Yes, I carry a similar burden and music was my only lifeline. Article missed the boat bigtime on parental abuse.
edwardc (San Francisco Bay Area)
Robert Sapolsky studied baboons, taking blood samples (just males as females were essentially always either pregnant or lactating) and tracking them for years. The conclusion he reached for them that he claimed held for humans too and that's relevant to this article is there are three things that result in longer life expectancy, being at the top of the. heap (far away the most important), not sweating the small stuff, and having lots of friends. Unfortunate Ms Seo's apparently unaware of Sapolsky's important work because it's highly relevant. P.S. See Sapolsky's 1994 "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers".
Susan (Philadelphia)
Caregiving. I aged a decade in six months as the sole caretaker of my 93-year-old mom after she fell and broke her hip. The long term care facility did everything to keep her alive despite her DNR, and nothing to support me. She was a cash cow, I was a liability. No amount of mindfulness can wipe away the 24 hour stress experienced by caregivers.
Jyoti Marwah (Philadelphia)
@Susan please take care of yourself! Long term care facilities do not have welfare of the caregivers in mid . They are only interested in making money. I hope you have a good social support system and accessability to stress releasing exercises that can help you to restore your energy ! Good luck.
Marc (London)
@Susan I took care of my Mum; helping her work through the hurdles of dementia for six years while I was working full time. I was able to fool myself as to the amount of devastation this brought to my life until I came across two photos. One was a picture taken prior to when I was the sole caregiver for my Mum; you can probably figure out when the second picture was taken. Six years had passed, but I looked as though I aged fifteen years. She needed the care, and I would do it all again, but we must not fool ourselves about the toll this takes on our lives and health.
DG (Maryland)
Another way of looking at stress and the human stress response, is to consider both from a Darwinian perspective. I believe there is considerable evidence that biological populations naturally self regulate their numbers head count within environmental constraints. Not trying to be cheeky - but if one considers the dilemma from such a neutral point of reference, then the importance of finding ways to live in a society that reduce stress - becomes obvious. Sadly, that prescription is not considered realistic by many stressed out humans. Kinda paradoxical - ok - that's a bit cheekie.
Bunny Lee (Fort Worth Tx)
As a parent of a disabled adult, I am always on call. I organize my schedule and his. And all the other things parents do: transportation, medical appointments, social schedules, and the endless interactions with all the social services he needs. If that is not enough, what will happen to him when I am gone. There is not enough exercise or mindfulness to offset this stress.
Heidi (Colorado)
@Bunny Lee l, too, have an adult child with disabilities. The endless appointments and “case management” tasks take an enormous physical toll.
Karen (Bay Area)
One stress not mentioned was that caused by dealing with an elderly and sick life partner, when you are aging yourself. I saw this with my healthy dad, who became very ill just two years after the death of his partner, after 5 years of caring for her. Alone, with no help from her daughters. I’m seeing this now with my friend, who is caring for her very ill husband, who will not go willingly to the long term care that is way overdue. He may well outlast her. No amount of healthy eating, meditation, exercise,etc—that some of the cruel comments have suggested will end stress— are applicable to my friend, nor were they applicable to my dad.
Lola (Canada)
@Karen I know of at least three instances where the caregiver died before the patient - two of them people I knew (of). I have thought of this a lot myself as a caregiver for my elderly mother. When I compare my before and after photos, I can see I aged more in 4 years than I did in the previous 12. Can't get that back!
Al M (Norfolk Va)
@Karen I am there. You are right.
sandhillgarden (Fl)
The primary sources of stress and your ability to withstand it are physiological--Only you can control this, no one else. Quit the alcohol, quit drugs and smoking, quit processed foods, and get at least 8 hours of sleep per night. Quit the job and lifestyle that seem to prevent you from achieving these things. Some things, you just have to let go of.
B. (Brooklyn)
A privileged comment. Most people cannot just up and quit their jobs, not if they don't want to lose their homes, and taking care of family members young and old usually precludes eight hours of sleep. Those who both work and have responsibility for others are lucky to get four hours of sleep and a meal and a half. Ask anyone.
J. (Here and There)
@sandhillgarden. Your words are spoken as one who is very secure financially and who lives in a bubble. Through volunteer work I did for several years after I retired, I came into contact with people from all walks of life. It was an eye opening experience that gave me even more empathy for others and the stressors they face every day. Perhaps you should volunteer in a capacity that will allow you to see the realities that many, if not, most Americans face in dealing with jobs that don’t pay a living wage, lack of access to truly affordable health care, and childcare costs that are astronomical. Americans face stressors that people in advanced countries don’t because they have affordable, high quality health care, child care, education and living wages.
Woodsy (Northeast)
@sandhillgarden Maybe have some compassion for those who can't "just let go" of whatever is causing them stress...consider caregivers, people suffering from disease and pain, women who are carrying children they don't want or can't afford...there's no end to life's inequities. It's cruel to pile on. And if you've lost touch with stresses people go through beyond too many cookies and lack of sleep, consider volunteering with those less fortunate than you. It could be a real eye-opener.
Becky T (Portland, OR)
I can vouch for these conclusions from my own experiences. i went from being one of those kids who never missed school to getting pneumonia repeatedly and having chronic inflammation issues (including eosinophilic esophagitis) after prolonged stress from a big law firm job and having small children. I did a reset with two months of an anti-inflammatory diet and had great success. I didn't get sick for 2 1/2 years after that.
Susan Weinberg (Montana)
The biggest stressors in my life have been the death of my 11 year old son in 1990 by his own hand and my son who was born in 1995 who was seriously autistic and non verbal who was such a handful that 2 people could not manage him with unending sleepless nights. We worry whether he would find some way Houdini like to manage to get a door open and wander out in the middle of the night that, for his own safety, we had to put into a group home. For 30 years I have carried those burdens, never voicing them or letting anyone know about this for fear of people thinking I was a bad parent, uncaring, etc, even got grief from my sister about it. Not anymore. Within my social circle I now express these periods in my life. I don’t care what people think about me now. They should feel fortunate they haven’t had to carry such lifelong burdens. Maybe someone knowing about them will help another count their blessings when times get rough. My biggest stress reliever are dogs.
Al M (Norfolk Va)
@Susan Weinberg Cannabis helps a great deal to, in limited amounts.
Martine (Texas)
But you know "mindfulness" can cure everything? Right? Let us have some concrete suggestions. I will exercise and eat better and try to soothe my stressors with a good book or TV show but "mindfulness" just irritates me.
Mr. Blisster (PDX)
@Martine I agree, Also can't stand the catch phrase " well it is what it is" c r a p.
Fred L. (Nevada)
I was reading some rat research: "These rats felt defeated or despairing for good reasons. They were subjected to a great deal of senseless pain and there was nothing they could do about it. The common theme of current research is unmistakable: despair, hopelessness, helplessness and feelings of defeat are the 'seeds' of malignancy. They make the system vulnerable to all other toxic sources in the environment." This wasn't from a medical journal, but from Arthur Janov's The New Primal Scream, published in 1991. The scientist stressing out the rats was Hans Selye, famous for his research on the fight-or-flight syndrome.
Lola (Canada)
@Fred L. And thankfully we are starting to question the blithe mention (as if it's all in the "service of science") of experiments involving, in essence, torture of animals. We need to understand stress, but the ways these researchers - some of them very much lauded by the community - have tested it are barbaric. An infamous example is Harry Harlow's cruel research on monkeys and attachment. I'm sure people would be appalled to hear of the rest of it.
Rodrick Wallace (Manhattan)
Perhaps we should move beyond individual-oriented interventions like 'mindfulness' toward collective actions that constrain the agents of oppression producing fatal stress: join/help organize things like labor unions, civil rights and other progressive political groups, and so on... Or is this too radical an idea?...
Astrid (Nebraska)
Depression as a stressor: My mother once told me about a depressed actor who would lock himself in a hotel room and watch comedies all weekend. Does this truly help in the long run? Serious question.
coolgrey (SF)
Norman Cousins, Anatomy of an Illness
Mr. Blisster (PDX)
@Astrid Yes that and get a Boston Terrier for daily laughs. Audio books also.
Fahad (Iqbal)
I have been dealing with almost same kind of issue in dealing with stress and due to stress and inflation i am looking much older than my actual age . my actual age is just 33 but i look like 40 or 45 . i think one of the reasons is that i have my own website ( ) and i want to grow it and make it one of the biggest and cant figure it out that how can i do it or may be its because i think too much. i donot know what is the issue but inflation in my country makes this article so related to me that i cant resist commenting on it ! i hope everything goes good with the world in coming days ahead.
estrats (Charlottesville Va)
@Fahad Remember some income from the internet is over inflated..i make 1/2 cents ea. from my downloaded recordings...more exposure more name recognition naturally will make more for people, so go to a reliable websight and ask the analysts how to make money or they will give information as to the predictability of your product...quora is good for info. do not be discouraged this is all a new medium and believing the numbers sometimes is hype....
Sam Katz (New York City)
One of the most insidious aspects of stress is that it can be unconscious. In 2007, I developed a condition that kept me from swallowing or breathing properly. It felt like a rock was pressing on my chest as if I was one of the condemned at the Salem Witch Trials. It took seven weeks and many tests to discover I developed a spasm in my esophagus: a condition I still have today, albeit mostly under control. I thought in 2007, it might have been caused by my asthma inhalant. I did not figure out the real cause until three years later, in 2010, when I imploded with latent PTSD from the loss of my broadcasting career 29 years prior. I finally figured out that the 2007 esophageal spasm was caused by the same man who destroyed my first career. In 1981, he was an alcoholic, cocaine addicted DJ at WNBC Radio and his sexual harassment and abuse traumatized me out of my performing aspirations. In 2007, when I still wasn’t ready to face it, the esophageal spasm manifested itself when he attacked the Rutgers University Women’s Basketball Team. The whole world responded to the Team, but in 1981, there was no one who came to the rescue of a 4’11” gal at her third radio station. Not only did I lose my broadcasting career and performing aspirations at age 26, I will most likely have the esophageal spasm for the rest of my life, too. As memories can fester subconsciously for decades, so can the resulting stress. It really is a silent killer.
Factumpactum (10023)
@Sam Katz That is a horrific experience, though not necessarily the cause of esophageal spasm.
LoveNotWar (USA)
@Sam Katz Thank you for sharing your story. I suspect many of us can relate to the trauma of losing a position or even a career because of the distorted perceptions of those who have unwarranted authority over our working lives. Unfortunately, when these judgements deprive us of what we’ve worked for for so long, it not only effects us emotionally but can be devastating physically as well. For me, even the slightest critical remark can take me up short.
Sam Katz (New York City)
@Factumpactum I believe it was. The spasm mysteriously started on Labor Day, and effected the portion of my anatomy most closely linked with voice, and hence radio -- my throat. But most importantly, it mysteriously appeared in the wake of the "nappy headed ho" slander, and worse Imus' phony apology: something I never received, even after he knew I wrote a big book about it all in 2018. (Google Ask Me How This Happens by Sam Katz.) Unfortunately, the spasm has damaged my voice badly over the past 15 years, so I cannot do what I intended 40 years ago now. The aftereffects of stress are long-lasting.
Will Tennant (Connecticut)
Stress can be dealt with effectively. Be kind, thankful, help others, enjoy the beauty of nature, have a daily meditation practice, walk, run, swim and do yoga. Quit arguing with people about politics, stop viewing social media and watching news on TV. Simplified be loving, not hating. Eliminating TV in favor of reading, along with exercise, yoga and meditation has worked wonders for me.
Barbara (Coastal SC)
For at least some people, social stress is not the main stressor. I have PTSD and just experienced a three day plus run of greatly increased anxiety over an issue that I know perfectly well will turn out fine in the end with minimal cost and effort on my part. My conscious mind knows, but my unconscious and my body haven't yet received the message. No amount of regular exercise, good food, sleep and the other usual components of good health will fix this kind of anxiety, nor does mindfulness or similar mental excercises. So far, the only things that help are social support and medication, which I am loathe to take. Makes me wonder what toll this will take on my aging body.
GMO (new york city)
There have been several comments stating that exercise, including walking, helps in the handling of stress. I used to love to walk but sad to say I now find that it adds to my stress. There are a lot of gun-toting crazies walking around and now that practically anyone can carry a gun--Thank you Supreme Court--- our lives will be even more stressful.
jsreynolds (Erie, PA)
Make sure you also avoid churches, synagogues, mosques, supermarkets, restaurants, schools, concerts, theaters, post offices, places of business, medical offices and hospitals.
Zoey Jackson (Chesterton IN)
@GMO I guess the only safe places (where guns are not allowed) are the buildings where the lawmakers and Supreme Court judges hold sway and send forth these edicts.
Fran Smith (Ohio)
@GMO waking treadmill. Watch happy movies or listen to good books at the same time.
I believe I have a stress-induced autoimmune disorder. Yes there were other factors at play that lead to my diagnosis, but 2 other coworkers got the same chronic illness while working in the department we worked in together. It is a very high stress work environment.
CD (Maryland)
Is it the stress alone or the comorbitities associated with stress that lead to premature aging? Obviously obesity, lack of exercise, and high blood pressure are associated with stress and premature aging. As other posters have noted, the association of stress with premature aging along the lines of these comorbitities isn't a groundbreaking finding.
jazz one (wi)
Geez. What a news flash. I can actually feel my telomeres shriveling up and fraying during and after periods of stress and sadness (which is pretty much every minute). I know my life will be significantly shortened by this. That, at least, will be the relief.
Sookie (Arkham MA)
Humor helps. It stops my stress almost immediately if I can laugh at some portion of my situation - even if it's a grim laugh.
Stephen Rinsler (Arden, NC)
Aging in general is (like all of biologic phenomena) poorly understood. (Chronologic age and biologic “age” can differ quite a bit without a clear mechanistic basis, so far.) It seems to me that characterizing presumptively dysfunctional changes as “aging” adds nothing and generates a relationship that isn’t necessarily useful and leads to confusion. Stephen Rinsler, MD (Old, nongeriatric physician)
Claudia (NYC)
@Stephen Rinsler I agree. I think it is quite unhelpful to say at the end of the article "you cannot really go back to how things were ". You can improve your level of stress by practicing meditation, yoga ,following a healthy diet . Seeing a therapist if needed.Making lifestyle changes can impact your health dramatically. While there are many issues associated with aging it is better than the alternative.
Paul B (San Jose, Calif.)
@Stephen Rinsler "Chronologic age and biologic “age” can differ quite a bit without a clear mechanistic basis, so far." The "clear mechanistic basis" is: - Increase in body fat (which we know is metabolically active and churning out what amounts to poison.) - Decrease in muscle mass - Decrease in physical activity When 70% of the US population is overweight or obese, and doesn't do either (and certainly not both) cardio and strength training, how can you say we don't understand what's causing the problems of aging?
Stephen Rinsler (Arden, NC)
@Paul B, As physicians, we desire to use our knowledge of human biology to help our patients live a better life. I was making the point that we (as physicians) have to be aware of our great ignorance of basic biologic factors that are presumably drivers of long life vs early demise. (Answered -belatedly- on 21 Jan 23, while I found this comment attached to an article on stress and aging (republished?) 7 months later?)
Greg Gerner (Wake Forest, NC)
Want to know what really "stresses" the immune system? Eating the Standard American Diet (SAD), which consists of meat, dairy, eggs, highly processed foods and fast food, ALL of which are HIGHLY pro-inflammatory. The SAD diet constantly stresses the immune system with its 24 hour a day assault of pro-inflammatory foods. Want a more robust immune system? Stop eating crap! And, when you do, you'll find that "stress"--which all human beings have had to deal with since the beginning of time lo unto the present day--will magically take care of itself.
Meghann (Florida)
@Greg Gerner I agree, but I'd like to add to that: get plenty of exercise! When you work out (or even go for a long walk), your body works off stress. Remember: "garbage in, garbage out."
N.G. Krishnan (Bangalore)
It comes as no surprise that stress is the dominating feature of western society. These societies have adopted a secular way of living which signifies the impartiality of the state in matters of religion. Religion of any kind may not be publicly enjoined, funded or supported by any public authority. Naturally, societies are unable to use spiritual teachings which play a significant role as coping resources under stressful circumstances, by confronting a variety of stressors repeatedly. Employing religious/spiritual coping techniques in managing the negative impact of work stress is a well-documented fact. Among modern western society, the role of religion has considerably declined to overlook that religion gives people something to believe in, provides a sense of structure and typically offers a group of people to connect with over similar beliefs. These facets can have a large positive impact on mental health — research suggests that religiosity reduces suicide rates, alcoholism and drug use. Spirituality is a sense of connection to something bigger than us—it helps a person look within and understand themselves while also figuring out the greater answer of how they fit into the rest of the world. In other words: It helps people understand their interpretation of the meaning of life. Spirituality also incorporates healthy practices for the mind and body, which positively influences mental health and emotional wellbeing.
LV (Ithaca)
I agree, and enviably notice the communities of support awarded the religious. As an Atheist (raised Italian-Catholic), I struggle to find my way into a familial community while remaining authentic to my values and morals.
Martine (Texas)
@N.G. Krishnan For some of us patriarchal religion is a big stressor: see paticularly Evangelical Protestantism and Catholicism. Maybe I will become a Wiccan in my old age.
Sang Ze (Massachusetts)
This is Earth-shattering news? I've lived with stress almost all of my life and I'm still here - and stressed. Frankly, the USA is a very stressful place, violent and mean-spirited. Living abroad has always been less stressful, and had I been able to do so, would have chosen to live out my life in some other country.
Lawrence Bentley (Westford,MA)
@Sang Ze Name the "less stressful" countries. Iceland? Seems to me a persons' with trauma & discrimination mindset determines the amount of personal stress before they even arrive in another country according to this article. This article was disappointing.
Kathy (SF)
There are a lot of people for whom life is totally shaped by childhood neglect or abuse. When your nervous system is in high alert all the time because you're not safe it causes all kinds of physical, emotional and social problems long-term. Most of these problems are learned responses to terrible stresses that lasted for years - there is nothing intrinsically wrong with us and we can learn to calm our systems and react differently. There are now a lot of books and resources for people suffering Cptsd.
Mr. Blisster (PDX)
@Kathy Yep.Article missed that completely!
Boomer Stu (Southeast US)
I don't mean to diminish anyone's specific burdens but I have a hard time imagining a life without stress. The battle to survive, to earn subsistence, to procreate, to age, they all bring challenges to be dealt with. Any job worth doing comes with a degree of pressure if doing it actually matters. Same with raising a family or carrying on relationships. Every life form, living or dead, has borne its share of hardships in the quest to survive. Other than childhood (which has its own difficulties), where is this utopia where no one works or suffers?
Dogwood (Earth)
@Boomer Stu Well, I think you have to appreciate that stress, by degree, is a relative thing. Of course, living, by definition is stressful, but there are circumstances that you might be placed in, voluntary or otherwise, which are exponentially more stressful, than what you would experience otherwise. Super high pressure jobs, abject poverty, situations that create PTSD... etc. Like everything that can be measured, there are outliers.
Boomer Stu (Southeast US)
@Dogwood Sure, I agree, and some clearly have it worse than others. But I challenge you to find any among us who doesn't claim they are "stressed." If our ancestors who farmed land, settled towns, battled nature and overcame wars, depressions, plagues and other hazards of life just packed it in due to "stress," we wouldn't be here. Stress, to some degree, is the default condition of life.
estrats (Charlottesville Va)
@Boomer Stu Yes agreed some stress is good in that it keeps one challenging oneself and of course its all in the way you look at thats not denial...its healthy coping...otherwise we would be a nation of jealousy,anger,competitiveness...its all in the way you perceive or look at things...
Kate (Bellingham)
So many of these kinds of articles are written with a certain audience in mind- namely, all those who are financially secure enough that mental health days and taking a walk will help. For anyone who is living in or constantly on the edge of poverty, these are laughable.
Lawrence Bentley (Westford,MA)
@Kate I don't even know why this made the Times, to wit: "The new study only looked at older, mostly white adults..." Why report on a study for people 50 and older that doesn't look at everyone?
Sookie (Arkham MA)
@Lawrence Bentley The article is focusing on the stresses attendant with aging. That's not addressed very often.
Nell (Oregon)
@Sookie Thank you for noticing!
N.G. Krishnan (Bangalore)
It’s a no-brainer that stress can take a serious toll on mental and physical health. Undoubtedly incidence of parental burnout is high depending on the country’s culture. A high level of stress in the family can lead to parental exhaustion which has serious consequences for both parents and children. Rich, individualistic Western countries, which on average have few children, are the most affected by the phenomenon. Culture, rather than socio-economic and demographic differences between countries, plays a predominant role in parental burnout. Western Countries' values of individualism can subject parents to higher levels of stress. The results force us to question ourselves in a context where the mantra of “everyone for oneself” is spreading all over the world. One parental burnout specialist observed that “individualistic countries cultivate a cult of performance and perfectionism” Parenthood in these countries is a very solitary activity, unlike in poor and developing countries. Its common in poorer countries the entire community is involved in raising children, more children mean higher collectivism. This dimension seems to protect against parental burnout. The Covid health crisis has exacerbated the parental stress in affluent countries, with families finding themselves isolated and cut off from their social relations. Need to revive long-lost cultural identity and extend sharing and mutual aid among parents within a community is the dire need of the hour.
Sanger (Corning)
Do you live in an urban area? Is your day full of sirens, crossing signals and a hundred inconveniences a day? Must you use public transportation to commute to an existence-level gig? Then you live in a democratic stress factory and your only hope is to leave.
Macrina (Seattle)
EVERYTHING goes downhill with age! Apropos stress, the eminent University of Chicago sociologist Edward Shils was chosen by the Allies at the end of WW2 to assist and report on the ability of holocaust survivors to cope following horrendous nightmare of incarceration - ie., how much remedial / therapeutic assistance they would need. His findings: they just wanted to be left alone and get on with what remained of their lives. It's the natural instinct of all species...
Jzzy55 (New England)
But then later on there was realization that “just getting on with things” doesn’t help PTSD in the long term. The wee is a huge literature on this.
theresa (ny)
@Macrina One size does not fit all. I remember reading about a study of Holocaust survivors who refused to discuss it, just wanted to get on with their lives. They actually did better than those who could not get past it. I wonder if this is the study.
Macrina (Seattle)
@theresa That was likely from the same committee on holocaust survivors that Shils chaired. I don't have the source, but I know Shils said it and he wasn't swept up in abstractions and gobblygook like modern day academics...
Eve E (Update NY)
And this is a surprise? Life is STRESS. Imagine the poor people of Ukraine who were living OK lives until bombs dropped on them for no reason. Now, after 2 + years of pandemic; uncertain financial footing; inflation; more Covid; climate change; the threat of WWIII, the citizens of the World are about to collapse; go insane; kill others for no good reason; hate on each other; etc. Life is impossible. No wonder so many people just give up and die; commit suicide; fall into terrible illnesses. HELP.
Charles (Cincinnati)
@Eve E I do agree with you Eve E and if it was not for the art I have made all of my life, as well as my grown daughter I adore, I would be falling as well. We all must remember to be good to ourselves and remember to quiet our minds in whatever ways work, even if that is only sitting quietly and listening to the world.
FWIW (Portland, OR)
Go on a news fast. Really. Call a loved one, share a meal, watch a movie, read a novel, spend time in nature. We aren’t built to continuously feel the suffering of the world, or be fed the constant fear and outrage provided by the media 24/7. Turn it off. Feel the real life around you. Be kind to others and help someone you can look in the eye.
PhillyPerson (Philadelphia)
One of the biggest sources of stress is the American medical system. Long waits to see doctors, billing errors, incompetence,insults, rudeness,lies, ageism…I’ve skipped screenings for years just to avoid dealing with all this. In fact, most screening tests can’t be justified by the evidence and doctors try to bully people into taking them. More stress. On the rare occasions I see doctors it’s a nightmare.
Linda Abraham (Near UF)
So I’m not the only one.
MB Blackberry (Seattle)
This is news? The author seems to focus on protection from microbes, etc when really the immune system is so much more than that. It is in charge of maintaining homeostasis, that is, keeping all of our body’s systems in balance. A mature immune system promotes health. Preventing (or retarding) that maturation process, which mostly occurs after birth, can result in a variety of medical conditions not directly related to bacterial or viral infections. Like asthma and allergies. And when there is talk of boosting the immune system, recall the large number of people who died in early in the pandemic due to cytokine storms. This is when your immune system is over-activated to such an extent that it attacks the cells of your body. A very readable and fascinating book by Philipp Dettmer titled “Immune: A Journey into ….” was published in late 2021. It IS a complicated system but really interesting. Oh, and stress can slowly kill you in new ways that we continue to learn more about. Think about the difference between the stress of being chased by a predator and that of dealing with a toxic boss every workday.
yr buddy (malden, ma)
Society is pretty ruthless. Too bad for people who have less money. All those people need to do is work hard enough. You betcha!
DickeyFuller (Boston)
Didn't we already know this?
Kate (S E Pennsylvania)
Stress is not a single event or day or week, life is stressful. Marriage, childbirth, raising the child, death of my father at age 59, buy a new house, accept a job promotion, child starts school, mom is diagnosed with breast cancer, juggle all those things for over a decade and stress and life become one and same. Awaken every day and be thankful for the little things like the child gleefully laughing while jumping on the bed, taking the dog for a long walk in the woods, coffee with your sibling after work, dinner with friends, your grandmother's 80th birthday party. Some days you will just keep putting one foot in front the other to survive the day. And that's OK. None of us is perfect or can be all things to all people all the time. Do your best in the moment. Life will go on, with you or without you.
Martine (Texas)
@Kate Great comment and so true.
Claude (Los Angeles)
Of course, stress takes a toll on our bodies. As my 80 year old wife has started her voyage into dementia, I have become prone to syncopes. After two visits to the ER and an impressive list of cardiac and neurological tests, all showing excellent results, I think that I now know enough about the signals my body sends in order to avoid any further such events. My competent and well meaning psychiatrist’s main message is “yep, that’s the way it is and btw enjoy it because it will only get worse”, which is less callous and less unhelpful than it seems. I applaud the writer of this piece for attempting to make some helpful suggestions, but, in the end, I find that getting past the “poor me” and then the mere acceptance stages to fully embrace the source of the stress (assuming it is unavoidable) seems to work best.
sohy (Georgia)
@Claude I am an older adult and I have a neighbor about my age, who constantly has pity parties. It brings her tremendous stress, focusing on all of the negative things in her life and in the world everyday. I visit her daily, trying to help her relieve the stress, by providing company and conversation. The problem is that there are days, when she stresses me out to the point where I want to run screaming out her front door. Still, I tend to look at the positive things in my life, good pets, a good husband, a roof over my head, no debt, and the fact that I'm not living in Ukraine. It relieves my stress and makes me feel grateful for the life that I have. People like my neighbor don't seem able to cope with stress, which often leads to anxiety and a host of medical problems.
theresa (ny)
@sohy You mention the good things in your life. Does your neighbor have similar comforts? If not, her mental state is surely understandable.
RW (Arlington Heights, IL)
Nature is pretty ruthless. One of the biggest sources of stress for a lot of people is chronic pain or worry about medical conditions. Of course the stress exacerbates the problem in many cases. At least external stress can often be avoided by making changes.
upin (wisconsin)
Great to see the granular approach. But given the documented stressors this recent pandemic has caused women and especially mothers of young children, and many of the other comments here, I'd like to see even more granularity: what about a breakdown of the results among female and male participants?
Mary Fields (Silver Spring, MD)
By now, most people know that stress can take a serious toll and mental and physical health. Since Covid started more than two years ago many people have used the pandemic to stay away from people because of fear and anxiety. Avoiding people and situations to be safe but here's the thing we are wired to be in relationships with others. To belong and to help one another to be in community. Denying feelings, the good, the bad and the ugly denies our humanness. We are alive but we are not living. Living is challenging and difficult but it sure bets the alternative boredom and fear of doing anything because we might get sick and die. Here's the thing. .we all die but many of us don't live.
Ann Onymous (The Untied Status of America)
"Studies like this one make visible what people who endure discrimination and trauma already intuitively know, said Renee Eddy" Yeah, but it's always good to have empirical evidence. I'm pretty sure being transgender will take about 10 years off of my life, maybe more. Apart from the stress of society's hate and the culture war that is being fought against me, I have a very healthy lifestyle, and I come from a family of long livers. I don't think that will do me much good, though.
Sally (California)
@Ann Onymous Do what makes you feel lighter. For me? Popcorn.
Diane L. (Los Angeles, CA)
This has been the most stressful five years in my 70 yrs. And I thought the 60s & Nixon were bad.
Nemo48 (Pacific Northwest)
@Diane L. I returned from a tour of duty in the Vietnam War unscathed, physically and mentally, and have gone thru life like a tourist ever since. In 2017. I wasn't about to let some misbegotten yahoo like Trump get inside my head. And regarding the pandemic, I did and still do the Coronavirus waltz: mask, distance, and vaccinate.
Retired Veteran (NH)
@Nemo48 I returned from Vietnam unscathed as well. It's been 53 years, I wonder how many of us are still above ground? Welcome Home Brother! :-)
Diane L. (Los Angeles, CA)
@Nemo48 First thanks for your service. War is tough, especially that one. My husband & I have been "coasting" also but are now facing some real challenges with a devastating genetic diagnosis for our only grandchild & a recent serious cancer diagnosis for him. Puts things into perspective. Wearing masks etc. is a part of our lives, but being yelled at because we choose to do so has me questioning what is going on w/ people these days.
Toby (Midwest)
I think of my mother. She had 4 different cancers - but not due to metastasis. When she died she had been in chronic pain for years as well as having macular degeneration. And yet her warmth and compassion for everyone was remarkable. She lived through WW1, though her home was bombed. Her mother died when she was 5 and her father when she was a teenager. Her stepmother was abusive. She then married my dad who was also abusive. She married a second time to a very domineering guy. And guess what, her first husband, who clearly is a narcissist has no health problems at 99 years old. Her second husband also has fantastic health. Hate to say it, but it seems to pay to be selfish. And yet, my mother’s life was so much richer (at least appears) than both her husbands. She was so loved.
LindaS (Seattle)
@Toby My great aunt lived to be 101 and she was a battle ax. Her motto was “It is better to give ulcers than to get them”!
New Eyes (Clovis, California)
"Aging" is a constellation of thoughts that crystalized in American medical thinking in the late 1890's and became widely accepted in American culture as the only way to think about illness and human life. William Osler, "the founder of modern medicine" started the residency system of medical training at Johns Hopkins among other innovations which semed to help, but has invisibly promoted some very deleterious ideas. A well known person in his time, he opined in newspapers that humans only had about 40 years of useful and healthy life with 60 years of age being the outer boundary that one could expect health. Since he saw a high concentration in small sample size, he concluded that all could people could expect cardiovacular problems after the age of 60. In addition, he felt what he saw in the hospital was worse than death, and suggested euthansia instead and that pnuemonia was a blessing to the old. So widely were these thoughts accepted that in the 20th Century, that a number of movies and tv shows have plots involving cultures requiring euthansia at a certain age to avoid burdening society and the young. Star Trek Next Generation had one such episode with David Ogden Stiers. it is very important to examine other ways of healing and thought in order not to get enared in this concept of "old age" because doctors are trained to recommend tests at certain ages based on statistics which are self-fulfilling prophecies in a closed system. A Course in Miracles
Doctor B (White Plains, NY)
This makes perfect sense to me. I am Board Certified in Psychosomatic Medicine- the role of psychological, emotional, & behavioral factors as they apply in all types of medical care. I have consistently noted that patients with a history of abuse were much more likely to develop autoimmune diseases. Autoimmune diseases (e.g., Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis, scleroderma, et. al.) are basically caused by dysfunction of a person's immune system. Stress puts the body in a constant state of hyperarousal, as if trying to maintain a "fight-flight-fright" reaction 24 hours a day for months or even years at a time. Elevated of levels of "stress hormones" (e.g., cortisol) & inflammatory cytokines predispose a person to infection, ulcers, atherosclerosis, & a host of other medical problems. The benefits of reducing stress at any point in a person's life must be kept in mind for every patient we treat. This sometimes may involve the patient changing jobs, opting out of certain relationships, or curbing anything identified as a discretionary source of stress. Social media is a frequent offender. Successful treatment should include attention to the social context in which the patient's symptoms occur.
PhillyPerson (Philadelphia)
@Doctor B And sometimes it means changing doctors and avoiding the medical system. I just made a comment.
Incorporeal Bein (here)
For a child living with an abusive older sibling or adult in the household, there is unfortunately no way to stop, control, or escape from the 24/7 stress or the deleterious health effects that may result.
urbanlibrarian (new york, ny)
I spent a lot of years in high mental stress, unable to comfort myself, always struggling to cope with it. Therapy and education didn't do much more than enlighten me intellectually. In my early 60s I found myself with cancer, and then a few years later, a progressive autoimmune disease. I always felt, without question, that long term stress was responsible for both. My ways of coping were self-destructive. My body gave in and I was forced to give in with it. It wasn't until I was able to retire, could enjoy having met my own survival needs and a bit more, found healthy companionship, plus meaningful personal projects, that I finally found a safe spot to rest. My body aged much faster than it needed to. I am grateful to not be struggling, though the threat of cancer returning is always present. We live in a culture that provides many opportunities for stress.
NHMamma (Up North)
How about some positive tips NYT on how to deal with serious stress and trauma so that it doesn't result in long term damage for people.
MB Blackberry (Seattle)
@NHMamma: Become a hunter gatherer. If this seems too radical, avoid poverty and obnoxious, abusive people. Build strong social networks. But realize that genetics plays a part too. Some people are more resilient than others; life is not fair.
Sookie (Arkham MA)
@NHMamma Keep a sense of humor if you can.
Counter Measures (Old Borough Park, NY)
Common sense, strikes again!
pat (chi)
Is this surprising?
T (Houston)
This article is stressing me out!
Somethingtosay (LA)
I became stressed just reading this.
Ron Outwest (California)
Optimism and the will to live seem to be contributors to a long life but the aging physiology seem to be the limiting factor here. No one has the magic formula for long life some die at a young age others at very old age it is a roll of the dice and fates decision at every turn. Greet each morning with gratefulness and joy that your health allows you to enjoy your stay on earth.
W.B. (WA)
What you can do: try to cope. What you can't do: stop the deluge. Stress creation is a paying occupation in America today. The immune system responds to abuse, noise, pollution, bad food, bad air, bad social milieus, all the downward trajectories: quality of life, quality of relationships, "screen time", the collapse of nature, the collapse of quietude, the mangled environment, the cataclysm of our roadways, the immolating stressors of school, society, personal relationships. Everything seems calibrated to make life worse- and there is no reprise: the YIMBYs blithely ask for more, heralding the end of peace and quiet, clearing space for more heedless people, who make such a mess of everything. The bigger the mess, the more they are rewarded. All the while, the news mounts everyday- the idiocracy of politics, the venality of commerce and the stupefaction of "entertainment", and the old horrors: pestilence, disease, war. But what really destroys peace of mind is the foreknowledge of all this and being forced to participate in our own destruction. To be part of a system normalizing chaos for kids. That is us, in a nutshell. So, make the lotus pose, meditate with your earplugs in and the air filters on, doors and windows shut tight. Imagine a happy place. Do the best you can, because they are out there, doing their best to ruin it.
LindaS (Seattle)
@W.B. Buddhism: “Joyful participation in the suffering of Life.” This is the Human Condition, my friend. A good spiritual practice gets you through. Another teaching says that when you die, the first things you’ll be asked are “How much did you Learn? How much did you Love?”
jhc (Mass.)
“The YIMBYS blithely ask for more, heralding the end of peace and quiet, clearing space for more heedless people, who make such a mess of everything. The bigger the mess, the more they are rewarded.” “Heedless people,” really? You know what my stress is? I lost my mom three months ago after caring for her full-time, 24/7, she was bedridden, dying of ovarian cancer, for 1 yr and 8 months in hospice during the pandemic. Now my landlord has told me he’s selling the house I’m renting so I have to go. I’m grieving the loss of Mom and now home. There are NO apts here that I can afford due to the extreme housing crisis, thanks to NIMBY zoning laws for decades and politicians not caring about us low-income people. I can only afford what’s below all the asking prices for apts IF one comes up. I am so afraid I won’t find a place in my area; I need to stay here, my business is here and my ONLY family member is my brother, who I need to be near. I am not a “heedless person” making “such a mess of everything.” I am very low-income now—my self-employment business pretty much wiped out by Covid and by my 24/7 caregiving for my mom. Job loss, loss of home, loss of loved one, the top three stressors, all at once. And yet I struggle to find bits of joy among the losses, patting my cats, a walk along the harbor, dinner with a student, planting some herbs in some pots. The little things. And I am surrounded by people who love and care about me, it’s the only way I get through each day.
Charles (Cincinnati)
@LindaS I meditate and do the occasional Silent Retreat but when you added the teaching, my first instinctual reaction was negative - I am 67 now and I no longer entertain the ego-driven human need to believe in an afterlife. The very concept is anti-Life. We are reintegrated into the stuff of existence, into the dark matter. Our thoughts, memories and so on may float about I believe but our person will not.
JS (Seattle)
I have post viral cardio myopathy, which means heart failure from a virus. In late 2016 and early 2017 I suffered from 3 flu viruses in a row, or maybe it was the same flu that never went away. At the time, I was living with my partner and our teen aged kids in a blended family, which had devolved into a very stressful situation since moving in together the year before. Our relationship, despite my desperate attempts to save it, was clearly damaged and dying. I had lost my first wife just a few years before after a long illness, so I already had suffered a lot of stress, for years. My doctor misdiagnosed me for months even as I suffered from constant congestion and breathing problems, until I landed in the ER and then hospital, at last, and was diagnosed with heart failure. My partner ended the relationship just a few months later as I worked on improving my health. Now, 5 years later, my EF has improved to just below normal, I feel great, and am in a new, beautiful partnership. But I have few doubts that the stress I had experienced in that former partnership messed with my immune system and left me with heart failure.
Charles (Cincinnati)
@JS You have, as is said, paid your dues! I am 67 and experiencing unexplained weight loss and the loss of friends and yet, your story above is wonderful - in that you have come through so much with new delights. We can only do so much for ourselves as regards our health and I believe that we must allow life itself to be enjoyed, no matter how momentary. And I say this as one completely horrified by what is currently happen on this Earth.
Bonnie (Brooklyn)
All the more reason to dismantle racism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, etc. - as oppression is extremely "stressful" and shortens one's life span.
Ann Onymous (The Untied Status of America)
@jrd In other words, try to comply with an ancient dogma: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Be kind, because cruelty kills.
Sw (Los Angeles, CA)
@Bonnie You need to consider that for some people acting with hate, racism, etc actually makes them feel better. I used to work with people with explosive tempers. Their actions were extremely stressful for me. According to them, their explosions reduced their stress. I had the luxury of finding another job. I would not have that luxury if my existence-skin color or ethnicity-were stressful someone. It would likely be very stressful for a person raised as a racist to stop being that way, etc. The stress of their hatred would be hard on the recipients, but hey, the racist needs to reduce their own stress, that’s more important to their survival, they can’t care about the recipients. Unfortunately, social stress is bigger than a single person. And when we have lying politicians working people into a frenzy…
jrd (ny)
@Ann Onymous And tell me: when did the 'ancient dogma' ever become an abiding principle of life? How many more years, beyond "ancient", do we have try? Nostrums from the comfortable, who don't have to strive to survive, won't persuade those who do. There are other ways to improve human life, but some, it would seem, prefer religious precepts -- or woke jargon.
Sanman Thapa (Syosset. NY)
I think stress is part of our life. However, how you manage it is entirely a different thing. These are simple but helpful stress management recommendations. As Ms. Eddy alluded to, stress manifests from various angles, but recognizing those stressors and staying away from them is the simplest solution for anyone. Consciously or unconsciously, we carry so much burden. Suppose we don't know what is causing it and where it is coming from; then, those stressful situations may manifest as a somatic symptom disorder where those excessive thoughts and feelings turn into physical pain and discomfort. When I am stressed, I lose my sleep; I don't feel hungry, my body feels lethargic, my thoughts/feelings become fuggy, and I get frustrated easily. During the pandemic, we are forced to inherit more unwanted stressors, and this article could not be published at any better time. Thank you, and looking forward to reading more valuable tips and tricks like this to avoid these everyday stressors.
Ben (Sacramento)
Great. Nothing new here, at least not to those of us who experience trauma, discrimination, or chronic stress. Now, can you do me a favor? Get the word out to law schools! Law schools are notoriously toxic. My law school employs full-time doctoral-level clinical psychologists to treat our students because the environment is so toxic and destructive. I'm halfway through law school, and it's killing me, quite literally. I don't think I'll survive long enough to graduate.
PNWgal (USA)
It's a highly competitive environment and can feel overwhelming. But if you're halfway through then you've already made it through the worst of it - you can absolutely make it to the end. Take care of yourself and know it's ok to just focus on classes and not pile on the extra curriculars. And it's ok to avoid the classmates that make it feel more stressful than it needs to be. Good luck!
NHMamma (Up North)
@Ben If that's how you feel in law school- how will you feel when practicing law? I loved law school but found corporate law soul-sucking and my law firm deeply misogynistic. It wasn't worth it- especially on NH salaries. So, I left. I suggest if law school is making you so stressed out- perhaps re-evaluate your career path before you miss more years at something causing you so much stress. Good luck.
Citizen in (MA)
@NHMamma There are career paths for lawyers other than big firms. My daughter works for the state AG and loves it. Great life-work balance and reasonable hours. 6 years out, she says it was totally worth the grind of (short-term) law school!
Jim Madison (Philadelphia)
Thank you for this timely, useful article. And for bringing science to bear on something that affects all of us. Many psychological studies show that social support is one on the most important contributors to lower stress and to psychological resilience. For successful aging and retirement, develop a spectrum of family relationships and friendships while you are young, even if you are shy and it takes some effort. And maintain some younger friends, as you may be one of the lucky ones who lives a long time compared to your peers.
See also