At the 114th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association on Saturday, August 12, Elissa S. Epel, PhD, will present findings from a review of the current literature on the state of the brain, stress and the endocrine system. According to the review, more evidence shows how cumulative stress and the occurrence of disease may define age more than chronological aging.
Certain diseases start to occur when anabolic hormone levels start to decrease - when the tissue builders such as growth hormones, testosterone, estrogen and thyroid functions start to drop off - and when the catabolic hormones, those that can break down tissue, stay at the same levels or even start to increase. These hormones, the tissue fuelers, can become too active and actually break the body down. Cortisol, a catabolic stress hormone, can become more reactive when responding to acute challenges as one gets older.
This imbalance between the anabolic and catabolic hormones is likely to be responsible for many of the psychiatric and medical diseases associated with aging, said Epel, assistant adjunct professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. According to a model of neuroendocrine aging, "Subtle yet chronic changes in hormonal patterns can exert pathological effects on health over time."
It is also known, said Epel, that chronically elevated cortisol reduces lean mass and bone density, and shifts fat distributions that can precede the onset of many age-related diseases, such as osteoporosis, metabolic syndrome, Alzheimer's disease and major depression. But, she added, certain behavioral factors - like lifestyle and exercise - can modify some of these hormonal effects that seem to accelerate aging.
Compared with healthy, older adults under 100 years of age, healthy centenarians, said Epel, tend to show lower insulin and glucose rates when fasting, have higher or similar thyroid hormones, and have similar cortisol and growth hormone levels. Even though older adults are exposed to more chronic stressors (more health problems, fewer social connections), they do not necessarily experience greater daily stress. The authors believe that the healthy centenarians are using coping techniques, such as finding meaning in activities and strengthening meaningful social ties, to help moderate chronic stress.
One study found that centenarians reported using three coping strategies to deal with their health problems: acceptance, not worrying and taking things one day at a time. Those older adults who do not employ these types of strategies, said Epel, may become more vulnerable to stress over time.
Many of the neuroendocrine changes that occur with aging are not inevitable, said Epel, and "this is demonstrated by healthy centenarians. Certain age-related changes can be modified with physical activity, sufficient sleep and good coping techniques. 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 hormonal profile of aging, and may be a valuable marker for biological aging."
"Wear and Tear of Stress: The Psychoneurobiology of Aging
August 11, 2006
American Psychological Association
"Chronic Stress May Make You Age Faster
August 11, 2006