The 114th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association was the site of a presentation by Bruce McEwen, PhD, of Rockefeller University’s Laboratory of Neuroendocrinology concerning the finding that age may be more related to the presence of chronic stress and disease than to how many years have passed since a person was born (chronological age). In turn, moderating stress responses along with a healthy lifestyle can go a long way toward ensuring healthy aging.
Dr McEwen’s conclusion was the result of a review studies of how stress hormones affect the brain. "Acute stress seems to enhance immune function and improves memory but chronic stress has the opposite effect and can lead to disorders like depression, diabetes and cognitive impairment in aging," he explained.
Chronic stress, such as that involved in being a caregiver, having diabetes, or being obese, can result in a decrease in the activity of telomerase, an enzyme that helps maintain the telomeres--caps at the ends of the chromosomes which shorten as a cell ages. When the telomeres reach a certain length, the cell stops dividing and ages, which could contribute to some diseases associated with being older.
Dr Ewen noted that the perception of a stressful situation by the brain affects behavioral and physiological responses through the autonomic, immune and neuroendocrine systems. With chronic stress, "we can see structural and functional remodeling changes that affect how it functions," Dr Ewen stated. "These brain changes, which appear to be reversible, are able to change by not only pharmaceutical agents but also by lifestyle changes like exercise, diet and social support.”
The conclusion of another review presented at the APA convention by Elissa S. Epel, PhD, of the University of California, San Francisco, added more evidence to the role of chronic stress and disease as opposed to years lived in defining age. Dr Epel reported that the decline in tissue builders such as growth hormone, testosterone, and estrogen, and an increase in cortisol, a hormone that reduces lean mass and bone density that is released in response to stress, may be responsible for some age-associated medical and psychiatric diseases.
“Certain age-related changes can be modified with physical activity, sufficient sleep and good coping techniques,” she observed. “It is when chronic stress, inactivity and added body weight take hold that the neuroendocrine system becomes off balance. This imbalance between the anabolic and catabolic hormones now appears to be the most common profile of aging and may be a valuable marker for biological aging."
Related Health Concern: Anxiety
Anxiety can occur independently or in conjunction with other psychiatric or medical conditions, such as depression, phobias, chronic fatigue, cardiac disease, or respiratory compromise. Moreover, chronic anxiety is associated with a higher risk of morbidity and mortality from cerebrovascular and cardiovascular diseases, such as hypertension, cardiac ischemia, and arrhythmias, and it predisposes people to a range of other disorders (Muller JE et al 2005; Weissman MM et al 1990; Coryell W 1986, 1988). People with severe anxiety disorders who experience adverse life events such as divorce or financial disaster may be at increased risk of suicidal behavior (Allgulander C et al 1991).
Theanine is an amino acid found in green tea and produces a calming effect on the brain (Yokogoshi H et al 1998). It easily crosses the blood-brain barrier and produces subtle changes in biochemistry, including increased production of GABA and dopamine, which cause a tranquilizing effect. Research suggests theanine has neuroprotective effects in the brain, particularly in preventing neuronal death in the hippocampus (Kakuda T 2002).
The omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) are necessary for proper brain function. In the typical Western diet, people often suffer from an increased ratio of inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids to anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. It has been established that this imbalance can lead to a number of negative health problems. Fortunately, the imbalance can be addressed easily by supplementing with EPA and DHA, which have been shown to have mood stabilizing effects and possibly other neuropsychiatric effects.