Many factors can lead to cognitive impairment, such as lack of sleep due to other daily demands, facing traumatic events, job strains, everyday stressors, and discrimination. These factors may accelerate the body’s immune system aging, increasing a person’s risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, and illness from infections like COVID-19. The study identifies that stress fastens aging of our immunity.
The research, published June 13 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), could help explain disparities in age-related health, including the unequal toll of the pandemic, and identify possible points for intervention.
The research could help understand why age-related symptoms, including the risk of COVID-19 complications, occur in a higher percentage of seniors than younger people. Prior studies, primarily focused on young people, have shown that older people’s fat accumulation predicted higher insulin resistance levels, which remains valid during the pandemic.
The Research on Aging of Our immunity caused by stress.
“As the world’s older adult population grows, understanding disparities in age-related health is essential,” explained lead study author Eric Klopack, a postdoctoral scholar in the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. “Components of the immune system in the elderly alter negatively with increasing age and contribute to declines in health. An improved understanding of these changes
“This study helps clarify mechanisms involved in accelerated immune aging.”
Many old people experience a condition called “immunosenescence,” or decrement in the immune system with age. This means they have too many worn-out white blood cells circulating and too few new, “naïve” white blood cells to fight against infectious and illness-causing agents.
Immune aging is associated not only with cancer and cardiovascular diseases but also with increased risks of pneumonia and reduced vaccine efficacies. Significantly older adults may even be more susceptible to ancient diseases.
But what accounts for drastic health differences in same-age adults? USC researchers decided to see if they could tease out a connection between lifetime exposure to stress—a known contributor to poor health—and declining vigor in the immune system.
They queried and cross-referenced enormous data sets from the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study, a national longitudinal study of the economic, health, marital, family status, and public and private support systems of older Americans.
To calculate exposure to various forms of social stress, the researchers analyzed responses from a national sample of 5,744 adults over 50. They answered a questionnaire to assess respondents’ experiences with social anxiety, including stressful life events, chronic stress, everyday discrimination, and lifetime discrimination.
Blood samples from the participants were then analyzed through flow cytometry, a lab technique that counts and classifies blood cells as they pass one by one in a narrow stream in front of a laser.
As expected, people with higher stress scores had older-seeming immune profiles, with lower percentages of new disease fighters and higher rates of worn-out white blood cells.
The association between stressful life events and fewer ready-to-re respond, or naive, T cells remained strong even after controlling for education, smoking, drinking, BMI, and race or ethnicity.
Some sources of stress may be impossible to control, but the researchers say there may be a workaround.
T-cells—a critical component of immunity—mature in a gland called the thymus, which sits just in front of and above the heart. As people age, the tissue in their thymus shrinks and is replaced by fatty tissue, resulting in reduced production of immune cells.
Past research suggests that this process is accelerated by lifestyle factors like poor diet and low exercise, both associated with social stress.
“In this study, after statistically controlling for poor diet and low exercise, the connection between stress and accelerated immune aging wasn’t as strong,” said Klopack.
“What this means is people who experience more stress tend to have poorer diet and exercise habits, partly explaining why they have more accelerated immune aging.”
Improving diet and exercise behaviors in older adults may help offset stress-related immune aging.
Additionally, cytomegalovirus (CMV) may be a target for intervention. CMV is a common, usually asymptomatic virus in humans and is known to affect accelerating immune aging substantially. Like shingles or cold sores, CMV is dormant most of the time but can flare up, especially when a person is experiencing high stress.
This study’s statistically controlling for CMV positivity reduced the connection between stress and accelerated immune aging. Therefore, the researchers said that widespread CMV vaccination could be a relatively simple and potentially powerful intervention that could reduce the immune aging effects of stress.
In addition to Klopack, other authors include Eileen Crimmins, a University Professor and the AARP Chair in Gerontology at the USC Leonard Davis School, and Steve Cole and Teresa Seeman of UCLA.
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