How do you slow the aging process and extend life? How do you prevent or delay the chronic diseases that so often haunt aging, like heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, obesity, and Alzheimer’s? How do you join the elite ranks of what scientists call “successful agers”—the 10 to 20 percent of people who live disease-free into old age?

For decades, scientists have been searching for the answers to these questions. There are many competing theories about the causes of aging, and about the best ways to slow it. But among scientists who specialize in aging, there is one area of virtually unanimous agreement: Stress is a leading contributor to the chronic diseases of aging and to biological aging itself.

Reversing aging—in days

Now, a new study in the journal Cell Metabolism—titled “Biological aging is increased by stress and restored upon recovery”—has dramatically advanced our understanding of stress and aging. The study confirms that stress speeds up biological (cellular) aging. But the study also revealed new and remarkable information: Reducing or eliminating stress can quickly slow or reverse biological aging.

In the study, researchers from Harvard Medical School and several other leading institutions measured the effect of stress on aging in people and laboratory animals. The measuring tool was the rate of “epigenetic clocks,” currently considered the most accurate way to quantify aging. (The epigenome is the genetic layer on top of DNA.)

When mice were stressed in the laboratory, they aged faster. When the stress was removed, the aging they had undergone was reversed within days. Humans had the same results. When people underwent intense stress, like major surgery, pregnancy, and severe COVID-19, they aged faster. When the stress was over, the aging they had undergone was reversed within days.

Bottom line: Stress propels aging forward. But stress management can quickly undo the damage.

How to manage stress

Anti-aging research shows that reducing stress in any one system of the body—the circulatory system, the digestive system, the immune system, etc.—affects all the other systems, slowing the speed of aging and possibly extending life. Here are some of the most powerful ways to reduce stress.

Exercise regularly

Exercise relieves stress in many ways. It boosts mood, perhaps by increasing your level of endorphins, feel-good chemicals generated in the brain. It also improves sleep, providing more rest and relaxation, key factors in reducing stress. A 2020 study from Norway showed that people who are regularly active have a 72 percent lower risk of premature death (all-cause mortality) than inactive people.

Even mild exercise—like daily walking for 30 minutes five times a week—has mortality-
reducing effects.

Also consider exercises specifically geared to stress relief, like yoga and the flowing, gentle movements of tai chi or qigong.

Eat a predominantly whole-foods diet

Research consistently links a whole foods, plant-based diet to better health and longer life. In a 2020 study from the U.S Department of Agriculture titled “Dietary Patterns and All-Cause Mortality,” scientists analyzed results from 153 dietary studies conducted over two decades (2000-2019). They found the best diet for longer life includes plenty of vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and whole grains and is low in red and processed meat, high-fat dairy foods, and refined carbohydrates and sweets.

The foods you avoid are as important as those you eat. Studies link a diet rich in ultra-processed foods—like fast foods, frozen pizzas, white bread, sodas, chips, cookies and other sweets, and sweetened breakfast cereals—to many of the chronic diseases of aging, including heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease. In a 2022 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, people who ate the most ultra-processed foods had a 29 percent higher risk of dying prematurely compared with people who ate the least.

Get at least seven to eight hours of sleep

Sleep cleanses the brain of toxins and refreshes the emotions and mind, relieving physical and psychological stress. In fact, stress-related hormones like cortisol are typically at their lowest levels during sleep. In a 2023 study, published in JAMA Network Open, people who slept for less than seven hours nightly had a 53 percent higher risk of premature death than people who slept for seven hours or more.

For the most refreshing sleep, maintain a consistent sleep schedule, going to bed at the same time every night, and getting up at the same time every morning.

And don’t forget napping. Whenever you’re feeling exhausted during the day, take a few moments for some refreshing shuteye.

Use a stress-reduction technique

Meditation and relaxation techniques quiet the body and mind, relieving stress. There are many methods to choose from. Look for one that: 1) is supported by scientific evidence; 2) is easy to learn and practice; 3) has dependably repeatable results each time you practice; 4) and has a broad range of proven health effects.

In a study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, regular practice of transcendental meditation (TM)—a stress-relieving meditation that meets the above criteria—reduced all-cause mortality by 23 percent. In another study on TM—funded by the National Institutes of Health and published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes—regular practice for 5.4 years reduced the risk of heart attack, stroke, and all-cause mortality by 48 percent in people with heart disease. Studies show the likely cause of better health and longer life among TM meditators was reductions in high blood pressure and in psychological stress.

Connect with family and friends

Sympathetic family and friends can provide support and solutions during stressful situations, helping you be more resilient and more resistant to the impact of stress. A study from Brigham Young University analyzed 148 studies on social support and longevity, involving more than 300,000 people. Social support from family and friends “increased likelihood of survival” by 50 percent—an effect as strong as exercising regularly, not smoking, or controlling high blood pressure.

Spend time in nature

Spending time outdoors in nature, from gardening to walking in the woods, relieves stress. In a review of 64 studies on “nature therapy,” in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, scientists found that spending time in natural environments “reduces acute psychological distress.” Even watching a nature video of the forest or the ocean has an anti-stress effect.

Take an anti-stress herb

These herbs are called “adaptogens” because they help the body adapt to stress. Of adaptogens, one of the best-studied is ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)—a stress-relieving herb from Ayurveda, the ancient healing system of India. Ashwagandha stabilizes blood sugar and reduces oxidation. It also calms the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the hormonal pathway triggered by stress.

In a study published in the Oct. 13, 2023 issue of Medicine, people who took ashwagandha daily for 60 days had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and higher levels of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin. They also felt less stressed and less anxious, concentrated better, and said their quality of life had improved.

How Does Stress Cause Aging?

Stress is any stimulus that causes the “stress response,” a disorder in the balance or homeostasis of the body’s systems. Continued stress eventually leads to disequilibrium, dysfunction—and aging.

  1. There is physical stress, like eating too much processed food or daily exposure to air pollution.
  2. There is psychological stress, like a looming deadline or a dwindling bank account.
  3. There is social stress, like constant arguing with a spouse or loneliness.
  4. There is spiritual stress, an absence of purpose and ultimate meaning in life.

Stress—physical, psychological, social, and spiritual—causes aging in many ways:

  • Toxins. Stress cripples the body’s self-healing mechanism, allowing toxins to accumulate. Examples include the toxic proteins amyloid and tau in Alzheimer’s disease, and oxidized cholesterol and LDL cholesterol in heart disease.
  • Inflammation. During stress, inflammatory molecules become overactive, imbalancing the immune system—which further disrupts most of the other systems in the body. Scientists have given this problem the name “inflammageing.”
  • Oxidation. Stress increases oxidation, a kind of internal cellular rust. And when the production of oxidants exceeds the body’s capacity for antioxidation, cells age. (Oxidation of the mitochondria—the tiny energy structures that power every cell—is particularly destructive. Some scientists think mitochondrial damage is the main cause of aging.)
  • Telomeres. Telomeres are caps at the end of DNA molecules that help protect DNA from degradation. When telomeres shorten, aging speeds up. And stress—particularly psychological stress, like being a caregiver for a person with Alzheimer’s disease—shortens telomeres.

Under the influence of stress, all these factors (and more) combine to drive the aging process.

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