On this episode of X10, we talk about social factors, such as stress and economics, that have a strong impact on people’s lifespans.
The idea that stress affects aging is probably already familiar – it’s not exactly groundbreaking. Broadening and refining it would make it much more useful. In this episode, we’ll talk about an effort to do just that and to fully incorporate stress into longevity research.
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Today, we’re going to dig into a 2020 paper by Elissa Epel of the University of California, San Francisco. The first thing Epel does is expand the concept of stress. For example, she points out that exercise and caloric restriction are both actually beneficial stresses – hormesis – though they’re not usually thought of that way.
That’s fine, but it’s not a big deal. The really significant expansion is to not just focus on physiological stressors but also include social and psychological stress. Things like losing a job or working as a caregiver can be significant sources of stress, and that stress has real consequences.
Epel cites a study showing that depression in heart disease patients increases the risk of slow recovery and early mortality. Other studies show that more optimistic heart disease patients have fewer cardiac events and lower mortality. So, stress can be beneficial or toxic, and there’s social, psychological, and physiological stress. It’s starting to look like a pretty complicated picture.
Epel puts forward the idea of ‘stress resilience’ as a perspective that integrates these elements. Stress resilience is basically a person’s ability to recover quickly from stressful exposures. Everyone responds to stress differently, and just like there are different types of stress, our ability to respond is rooted in the different types of resources we have. There’s variation in our physiological stress response, which is shaped not just by genetics but also by early life history.
In addition to that, we all have a mix of psychological coping mechanisms, and then each person has whatever family, friends, or support network they can lean on and turn to. So, stress resilience incorporates biological, behavioral, and social aspects of being human, and since stress resilience determines our capacity to respond to stress, it affects whether a particular stress is beneficial or toxic, whether it stimulates growth or accelerates aging.
This viewpoint offers new questions and new ideas for longevity research and therapy. For example, how does stress resilience change over the course of life? We know some aspects of physiological hormesis decrease with age, and we know early life events are important, but understanding how stress resilience develops and changes would help a lot. For one thing, that could help us figure out how to increase stress resilience so that people are better able to cope – so they can live longer and healthier.
There are already some things we can do to increase resilience. Social support and strong networks can boost stress resilience, bolstering health and longevity. That can be as simple as a personal effort to provide whatever physical, financial, or emotional support you can to your friends and family, your community, but we can also think on a larger scale and consider not only how to boost resilience but how to reduce chronic stress.
Epel writes that “our rate of aging depends on our social context and conditions”. Too many people live in a social context and conditions that are a source of chronic stress. Epel points out that food insecurity doubles the risk of depression or anxiety. She also cites studies arguing that frequent exposure to the threat of discrimination or violence creates chronic stress. This stress shortens lifespans, and these are things we can decide to change now. These are longevity interventions that aren’t over the horizon or awaiting clinical trials but actually within our reach now.
Epel calls social and behavioral interventions “the current ‘big levers’”. Should the longevity community grab hold and use them to shift the landscape? Tell us what you think in a comment.
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