~ Stress Linked to General Malady, Premature Aging - (U. Wisconsin)

U-WIRE, 10-12-05

(U-WIRE) MADISON, Wis. -- Stress is an omnipresent part of a student's life. Whether it be through exams, dates, or roommates, stress is nearly inescapable. Given stress' ubiquity, there has been a significant amount of research done in the field, especially at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Stress describes a wide range of stimuli that signal the "fight or flight" response in the body. This response is left from the time when man's ancestors would encounter a predator that wanted to eat them. Eventually, human bodies evolved to produce a series of hormones in response to stress that would prepare the person to stay and fight the stressor or to run like hell.

These hormones, mostly adrenaline and corticosterone, work very well in preparing the body for short bursts of action. However, when the body is exposed to stress for extended periods of time, these same hormones that are meant to help can wreak havoc on the human body.

According to Patrick Roseboom, stress expert and UW-Madison psychiatric scientist, "prolonged stress ... is thought to damage the hippocampus, which [is] a region of the brain responsible for memory formation. There is also a decrease in immune function associated with prolonged stress, which can make a person more susceptible to infection. Additionally, problems such as irritable bowel syndrome have been linked to prolonged exposure to stress," Roseboom said.

Dr. Kurt Saupe, assistant professor of medicine and physiology, said that "repeated stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system [which activates the fight of flight response] and the catecholamine surge the you get [from stress] will accelerate the aging of the blood vessels in the body."

Prolonged stress puts a person at much greater risk for heart disease and stroke because the resulting blood vessel constriction can lead to blood vessel atrophy and make clots more likely.

According to Roseboom, "a recent study has suggested that the prolonged stress a mother experiences caring for a chronically ill child can damage the DNA of the immune system cells in a way that may speed up the aging process."

The study appeared in the Nov. 29, 2004 issue of Proceedings from the National Academy of Sciences. The scientists took 58 women between the ages of 20 and 50, 19 of whom had healthy children and 39 of whom had chronically ill children.

The mothers with ill children had significantly shorter "telomeres" than the mothers with healthy children. Telomeres, genetic chronometers resembling shoelace caps at the ends of chromosomes, shorten as we get older. Given the stressed mothers' shortened telomeres, the study shows evidence that stress may lead to premature aging.

So, what can the average student do to stop the negative effects of stress on their body?

"There are many steps a person can take," said Roseboom, "one of the most important is getting regular exercise, and eating a healthy diet. Both of these measures improve the body and mind's ability to deal with stress. Also, being able to develop coping mechanisms to decrease the stress level of a situation can be beneficial. This may include discussing stressful situations with a friend or a health care professional such as a psychotherapist."

"Decreasing stress in these ways should prevent the damages described above," Roseboom said. "Whether it's possible to reverse the damage once it has occurred has yet to be demonstrated."

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