Many of us see President Obama's graying hair and think, "it must be all the stress he's under." We view Hillary Clinton's furrowed brow and assume, "the weight of the world is adding years to her face." But do stress and anxiety actually accelerate the aging process? Is there scientific evidence to back this perception?
The fact is, the results from research are themselves pretty gray. Some studies studies suggest that stress has direct negative effects on our physical and emotional health, but its exact relationship is complex and not yet fully understood.
Here is what we know. Acute anxiety is our natural response to a real or perceived threat -- what we call the fight/flight reaction. It involves a two-way communication between our brain and body, resulting in activation of our cardiovascular, immune and other biological systems. It's our survival instinct at work.
But, when anxiety is prolonged -- that is, when our flight/flight reaction goes on alert and remains there -- our physiological systems elevate for longer periods of time and ultimately become maladaptive. The result? It wears our bodies down.
Research has shown us how this happens, pointing toward the impact that "stress chemicals" have when they are released into our bodies. They include adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol.
Which is all to say that aging is a product of metabolic processes that are naturally occurring and may be appreciably influenced by our environment. Our genetic makeup is most directly responsible for reaching our current life expectancy of about 78. While continuous stress may lead to chemical, cellular and molecular changes, causing irreversible alterations within our bodies, it is hard to know how much -- and exactly how -- they promote the visible ones that we associate with aging.
But biology aside, there are also daily lifestyle choices that may contribute to wrinkles and gray hair. People who endure continuous stress tend to eat poorly, exercise less, smoke cigarettes and sleep irregularly -- all of which can affect the aging process. If you include the tendency for anxiety to lead to frowning, tensing and tightening facial and neck muscles, we have a recipe for a premature aging appearance. Clearly, taking care of ourselves and avoiding stress prolongs a healthier aging experience. Likewise, neglecting our bodies -- and psyches -- over long periods of time may propel us toward premature aging and age-related disabilities.
We can only imagine how fast and furiously the stress hormones of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are flowing. Surely, their natural oxidation, glycation and telomere shortening are on overdrive -- leading their faces and bodies toward old age faster than your average everyday person. But, for the rest of us? We can try our best to keep our stress levels at a minimum, so we can prolong the health and vitality of our bodies well into our 80s and 90s.
Sure, we all age. And, in all likelihood, how we age is primarily determined by our DNA and the DNA of our parents and grandparents. But, we have learned a lot in recent years about the interplay between stress, biochemistry and genetics. If we can manage to keep anxiety and stress from accelerating our natural physiological changes -- internally and externally -- we are likely to look and feel better for longer periods of time.
Do you feel that stress has played a role in your aging experience? Tell us how.
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