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How stress may accelerate aging of the immune system

0 2 years ago

As people age, their immune systems naturally begin to decline. This aging of the immune system, called immunosenescence, may be an important part of age-related health problems such as cancer and cardiovascular disease, as well as older people’s less effective response to vaccines.

But not all immune systems age at the same rate. In our recently published study, my colleagues and I found that social stress — the stress arising from difficult or challenging circumstances relating to your social position or relationships with other people — is associated with signs of accelerated immune system aging.

Data and immunosenescence

To better understand why people with the same chronological age can have different immunological ages, my colleagues and I looked at data from the Health and Retirement Study, a large, nationally representative survey of U.S. adults over age 50 funded by the National Institute on Aging.

HRS researchers ask participants about different kinds of stressors they have experienced, including stressful life events such as job loss; discrimination, which could mean being treated unfairly or being denied care; major lifetime trauma, such as a family member’s having a life-threatening illness; and chronic stress, such as financial strain.

Recently, HRS researchers have also started collecting blood from a sample of participants, counting the number of different types of immune cells present, including white blood cells. These cells play a central role in the immune responses to viruses, bacteria and other invaders. This is the first time such detailed information about immune cells has been collected in a large national survey.

By analyzing the data from 5,744 HRS participants who both provided blood and answered survey questions about stress, my research team and I found that people who experienced more stress had a lower proportion of “naive” T cells — fresh cells needed to take on invaders the immune system hasn’t encountered before.

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