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It’s been nearly 20 years now since I quit a perfectly good job at a respectable national magazine and, abandoning what little common sense I then possessed, launched a publishing venture that quickly drove my family into bankruptcy. Along the way, I found myself dealing with unprecedented levels of stress: My shoulders froze, the simple act of swallowing food often became troublesome, a decent night’s sleep regularly eluded me. By the time I folded the enterprise two years later, I felt about a decade older.

Stressful periods can certainly make you feel that way, but volumes of research over the years have shown that it’s not just in your mind; stress can actually accelerate your body’s aging process. And those added biological years have long been considered irreversible.

That’s bad news for those of us who have endured seriously stressful periods in our lives. But Brigham and Women’s Hospital researcher Vadim Gladyshev, PhD, and his team believe the body is more resilient than we may think. Their research, published recently in the journal Cell Metabolism, suggests that we can reclaim those years once thought lost to stress.

Using DNA methylation clocks and other tools, the researchers calculated the changes in biological age in humans and lab mice after major surgery, pregnancy, severe COVID-19, and other stressful situations. They found that whatever accelerated aging occurred was only temporary; upon recovery, the biological age of the subjects eventually returned to what it had been prior to the incident.

“This notion,” says Gladyshev, “immediately suggests that mortality may be decreased by reducing biological age and that the ability to recover from stress may be an important determinant of successful aging and longevity.”

Like any longevity research, Gladyshev’s study comes with some caveats. Some DNA methylation clocks, for instance, do not always deliver accurate information. More importantly, though, the results leave any link between temporary fluctuations in biological age and longer-range aging potential unresolved.

“A key area for further investigation is understanding how transient elevations in biological age or successful recovery from such increases may contribute to accelerated aging over the life course.”

“Our study uncovers a new layer of aging dynamics that should be considered in future studies,” says coauthor James White, PhD, an assistant professor at Duke University School of Medicine. “A key area for further investigation is understanding how transient elevations in biological age or successful recovery from such increases may contribute to accelerated aging over the life course.”

I can’t recall how long it took me to recover from the stressful wreckage of my failed enterprise, but it’s heartening to imagine that the mostly tranquil era that followed may have dialed back some of the excess years my body accumulated during that episode. Perhaps the long-term effects won’t be quite as damaging.

And then I stumbled upon a report in JAMA Network Open guaranteed to stress out the already overly stressed. A research team led by Emory University epidemiologist Ambar Kulshreshtha, MD, followed nearly 25,000 older adults in a brain study for more than a decade and found that those struggling with high levels of stress were 37 percent more likely than their calmer counterparts to suffer from cognitive dysfunction as well.

The takeaway for Kulshreshtha involves better screening practices. “Findings from our study could have important clinical applications, such as screening for stress among high-risk older adults when they present with cognitive decline in primary care,” he writes.

While that’s certainly a plausible conclusion, my stressful past leaves me with a slightly different perspective. Ask anyone who observed the rapid collapse of my ill-fated entrepreneurial effort, and I suspect they can make a fairly strong argument that it was cognitive dysfunction — AKA plain stupidity — that caused the stress rather than the other way around.

Craig Cox
Craig Cox

Craig Cox is an Experience Life deputy editor who explores the joys and challenges of healthy aging.

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