Stress accelerates the aging of the immune system

Stress — in the form of traumatic events, job stress, everyday stressors and discrimination — accelerates immune system aging, potentially increasing risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, new study from USC and diseases due to infections such as COVID-19. .

The research, published June 13 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), could help explain age-related health disparities, including the unequal toll of the pandemic, and identify possible points of intervention.

As the global population of older adults grows, understanding age-related health disparities is critical. Age-related changes in the immune system play a key role in declining health. This study helps clarify the mechanisms involved in accelerated immune aging.”

Eric Klopack, lead study author, postdoctoral researcher at USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology

As people age, the immune system naturally begins to deteriorate dramatically, a condition called immunosenescence. With advancing age, a person’s immune profile weakens to include too many worn-out white blood cells in circulation and too few fresh, “naïve” white blood cells ready to deal with new invaders.

Immune aging is associated not only with cancer, but also with cardiovascular disease, increased risk of pneumonia, reduced efficiency of vaccines and aging of the organ system.

But what explains the drastic health differences among adults of the same age? The USC researchers set out to see if they could unravel a link between exposure to stress across the lifespan -; a known contributor to poor health -; and decline in the strength of the immune system.

They queried and cross-referenced huge datasets from the University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study, a national longitudinal study of the economy, health, marital status, family situation and systems. public and private support for older Americans.

To calculate exposure to various forms of social stress, the researchers analyzed the responses of a national sample of 5,744 adults over the age of 50. They completed a questionnaire designed to assess respondents’ experiences of social stress, including stressful life events, chronic stress, discrimination, and lifelong discrimination.

Blood samples from the participants were then analyzed using flow cytometry, a laboratory technique that counts and classifies blood cells as they pass one by one in a narrow stream past a laser.

As expected, people with higher stress scores had seemingly older immune profiles, with lower percentages of fresh disease fighters and higher percentages of spent white blood cells. The association between stressful life events and fewer responsive, or naïve, T cells remained strong even after controlling for education, smoking, alcohol, BMI, and race or origin ethnic.

Some sources of stress can be impossible to control, but researchers say there may be a workaround.

T cells -; an essential element of immunity -; ripen in a gland called the thymus, located just in front and above the heart. As people age, the tissue in their thymus shrinks and is replaced by fatty tissue, which reduces the production of immune cells. Previous research suggests that this process is accelerated by lifestyle factors like poor diet and low exercise, both of which are associated with social stress.

“In this study, after statistically controlling for poor diet and low exercise, the link between stress and accelerated immune aging was not as strong,” Klopack said. “This means that people who experience more stress tend to have poorer eating and exercise habits, which partly explains why they have more accelerated immune aging.”

Improving dietary and exercise habits in older adults may help offset stress-associated immune aging.

Additionally, cytomegalovirus (CMV) may be a target for intervention. CMV is a common virus, usually asymptomatic in humans and is known to have a strong effect of accelerating immune aging. Like shingles or cold sores, CMV is dormant most of the time, but can flare up, especially when a person is under high stress.

In this study, statistical control for CMV positivity also reduced the link between stress and accelerated immune aging. Therefore, widespread vaccination against CMV could be a relatively simple and potentially powerful intervention that could reduce the effects of stress on immune aging, the researchers said.

In addition to Klopack, other authors include Eileen Crimmins, university professor and holder of the AARP chair in gerontology at the USC Leonard Davis School; and Steve Cole and Teresa Seeman of UCLA.


Journal reference:

Klopack, ET, et al. (2022) Social stressors associated with age-related T-cell percentages in older US adults: Evidence from the Health and Retirement Study. PNAS.

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