The Nuance

Is the Pandemic Making Us Age More Quickly?

‘The chronic stressors that impact our body the most are both unpredictable and uncontrollable. And the pandemic is both.’

Illustration by Kieran Blakey for Elemental

Among the many customs and precedents upended by the Trump presidency, one of the least important (but fun) was the publication of before-and-after photos showing how the Oval Office had aged its occupant.

Trump’s makeup and hair-dying habits made such comparisons impossible. But Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton all looked noticeably older — and, in particular, grayer — by the end of their terms. Side-by-side photos of these presidents are often held up as proof that stress takes a visible toll.

But does stress really age a person more quickly? It’s a question that a lot of people have pondered during the pandemic. And experts say that yes, both inside and out, the body is weathered by heavy stress.

“Stress-sensitive hormones like cortisol perform a number of functions that are essential for life, and for normal maintenance and repair, which it does when stress levels are low,” says Darlene Kertes, PhD, an associate professor of developmental psychology and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Florida. These functions include helping to control blood pressure, immune functioning, inflammation, metabolism, and much else. “But when we are faced with major life stress, cortisol’s functions shift away from those maintenance roles and towards other functions that help us meet the challenge,” she explains.

This shift isn’t a problem when stress is brief and sporadic; the body is designed to handle these sorts of challenges, Kertes says. But when a person’s stress levels remain high for weeks or months, or even years, this not only impedes the body’s typical maintenance-and-repair functions, but it also causes unhelpful adaptations that typically occur as a body grows old and breaks down.

“I think the chronic stressors that impact our body the most are both unpredictable and uncontrollable,” she says. “And the pandemic is both.”

The many ways pandemic stress may age the brain and body

For an influential 2004 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences (PNAS), researchers took a close look at bits of genetic material called telomeres.

Telomeres appear on the ends of chromosomes and are thought to protect the enclosed DNA from damage — almost like microscopic fenders. Telomeres wear down as a person ages, and this wear is associated with the kind of DNA damage and dysfunction that leads to cancer and other age-related diseases.

In that 2004 PNAS study, the researchers found that prolonged psychological stress is associated with both shorter telomeres and a reduction in the activity of telomerase — an enzyme that is thought to build telomeres back up. Stress, its authors concluded, may induce “premature senescence” — perhaps as a result of oxidative damage generated by over-amped nervous and endocrine systems.

The impact of chronic stress on telomeres is probably just one of the many ways in which stress disrupts the body’s normal and healthy operation.

“Psychological stress stimulates the autonomic nervous system, renin-angiotensin system, and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis,” says Adam Friedman, MD, a professor of dermatology at George Washington University. Again, all of this is normal and useful in small doses. But if this stimulation persists, Friedman says that it can cause chronic immune dysfunction, increased production of “harmful oxygen species,” and DNA damage, all of which can contribute to skin imperfections, graying hair, and other signs — both cosmetic and biomolecular — of premature aging.

Telomeres wear down as a person ages, and this wear is associated with the kind of DNA damage and dysfunction that leads to cancer and other age-related diseases.

There’s even some evidence that stress may encourage cognitive or emotional changes that are normally associated with old age.

A 2018 study in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity examined the effect of stress on immune cells in the brain. “When a healthy person is sick, these cells generate a suite of symptoms,” explains Laura Fonken, PhD, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas at Austin. These symptoms include a drop in energy, a loss of interest in social interaction, reduced appetite, and heightened pain sensitivity. “All of these are very adaptive because, when you’re sick, it’s putatively better for you to conserve resources and not be out socializing and spreading infection.”

But as a person ages, Fonken says that these immune cells in the brain tend to become over-excitable. “As we get older, these immune cells get more reactive and this reaction is harder to get back under control,” she says. This may partly explain why many older adults eventually lose their energy or enthusiasm for social interaction, for eating, and for many of life’s other sources of pleasure. “With chronic stress, we see similar changes in the function of these immune cells — we see this hyperreactive state that we associate with aging,” she says.

Her work is mostly in rats, not people. But she says that her findings may help explain the links between chronic stress and mood disorders such as depression. “Stress-induced changes in these immune cells in the brain may be leading to changes in cognition and emotion that contribute to depression-like behaviors,” she says.

Pandemic stress doesn’t have to be harmful

There’s a lot of evidence linking severe and long-term stress to the kinds of internal and external changes that normally coincide with advancing age. But not everyone who grapples with stressful circumstances will walk away from the experience worse off.

“Stressful experiences are quite common and can certainly account for a lot of mental and physical health problems, but we also know that many people who experience these kinds of events go on to be fine, and may even build up some resilience in the face of these events,” says Jonas Miller, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University.

For a 2020 study in Cerebral Cortex, Miller and his collaborators found evidence that some children who are exposed to early life trauma and severe aversive experiences develop stronger emotion regulation, and slower rates of telomere shortening than kids exposed to less-harsh circumstances.

He says the takeaway from his study certainly isn’t that early life trauma is somehow beneficial. Far from it. “But exposure to early life stress is not a one-sized fits all kind of story,” he says. The experience of stress varies a great deal from one child to the next, and these same rules likely extend to adults. To his point, research on some of the world’s oldest-living adults has found that many lived through wars, famine, poverty, and other difficult and undoubtedly stressful circumstances without lasting ill effects. “I would say that stress is one of the most powerful determinants of health and well-being across lifespan,” he says. “But it’s important to keep in mind that a lot of people who experience stress do not develop problems.”

Just as each person experiences stress in his or her own way, experts say that people have to find their own ways to manage stress. And that kind of management is possible even in the midst of a pandemic.

“My best advice to reduce the impacts of stress on the body is to try to make life more predictable,” says U. of Florida’s Kertes. Again, she makes the point that unpredictability and uncertainty are core components of damaging stress. And so establishing routines — and sticking with them — is a great way to exert some control during stressful times. If those routines are healthy, all the better.

“Maybe exercise at a certain time each day, or meditate, or call a friend, or organize some sort of daily routine with your kids,” she says. “Anything that makes life more predictable right now is going to be helpful.”

I write about health and science. I live in Detroit with my wife and kids. I’m trying to learn German, but my progress so far is nicht gut.

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