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I read somewhere years ago about the counterintuitive strategy Mahatma Gandhi employed when confronting a full to-do list. “I have so much to accomplish today,” he’s reputed to have said, “that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.”

My morning routine typically includes a pedestrian 20 minutes of zazen, a practice I’ve been mostly neglecting in recent weeks as major deadlines loomed and my normally placid workday bulged with unforeseen, stressful tasks. There are only so many minutes in a day, I figured, and I needed to make a beeline to my desk in order to keep up.

I’m keeping up, but at a cost: I woke up the other day with a nasty head cold. The scratchy throat, stuffy nose, and general malaise reminded me that I’ve been ignoring mounting stress levels — and a technique known to manage them — while subjecting my aging immune system to forces beyond its control.

It’s a common calculus: Chronic stress overwhelms the body’s immune system and leads to illness. But the results of a new study suggest it can also cause the entire system to age prematurely at the cellular level.

“As people age, their immune systems naturally begin to decline,” University of Southern California gerontologist Eric Klopack, PhD, explains in the Washington Post. “But not all immune systems age at the same rate.”

Klopack and his team reviewed data from 5,744 people 50 years old and older who participated in the University of Michigan-based Health and Retirement Study. The subjects had responded to questionnaires about their stress levels and provided blood samples. Analyzing the responses and blood-cell content, the researchers concluded that those experiencing the most stress lacked the necessary balance of “naïve” T cells and “late-differentiated” T cells to effectively battle viruses and other invaders their immune systems were encountering for the first time.

“People with low proportions of newer T cells and high proportions of older T cells have a more aged immune system,” Klopack concludes.

When researchers factored in diet, exercise, and potential exposure to cytomegalovirus — a common latent virus that tends to accelerate immune aging — however, the effects of stress were less pronounced, so it’s likely that we do have at least some control over how our bodies contend with our aging immune systems. Importantly, Klopack admits that an epidemiological study such as this can only indicate a correlation, not cause and effect.

“More research is needed to confirm whether stress reduction or lifestyle changes will lead to improvements in immune aging, and to better understand how stress and latent pathogens such as cytomegalovirus interact to cause illness and death,” he notes.

I’d like to better understand how Gandhi found two hours to meditate when his to-do list was as long as his arm. Maybe time expands somehow under the sway of certain transcendental states. I’ve never found that to be the case, but I’m not Gandhi, am I?

I probably just need to get out of bed earlier.

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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