Study: Social stress makes our immune systems age faster

Social stress causes our immune systems to age faster

The man holds his hands in front of his face.

Those who are more frequently exposed to social stress have weaker immune systems (symbol image)

© Dominic Lipinski / Picture Alliance

According to a recent study from the University of Southern California, social stress, bullying and depression lead to the aging of the immune system. This can significantly increase susceptibility to various diseases.

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Those who struggle with bullying in everyday life or are unemployed usually suffer twice as much: according to a recent study, social stress causes our immune systems to age faster. And that in turn increases susceptibility to cardiovascular disease and cancer, but also to Covid-19.

As we age, our immune system weakens

Our immune system protects us from viruses, bacteria and other pathogens. The fitter you are, the less often we suffer from infectious diseases such as colds, flu and the like, but the risk of cardiovascular disease, for example, is also affected by the integrity of our immune system. However, a weak immune system not only affects the incidence of the disease but also compromises the effectiveness of vaccines.

As we age, our immune system becomes less and less effective. For example, it produces fewer antibodies. At the same time, the immune cells no longer recognize antigens so quickly and consequently have a delayed reaction to foreign bodies. When this aging process begins it varies from person to person.

Scientists at the University of Southern California have now studied whether social stress affects the aging of the body’s immune system. Researchers led by Eric Klopack of the Faculty of Gerontology have now published their findings in the journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” (PNAS).

Chronic stress, trauma and the like compromise the immune system

As part of the study, the researchers looked at the connection between social stress and typical signs of aging in the immune system. To do this, they evaluated data from a total of 5,744 over 50s. Study participants answered questions addressed, for example, to experiences of bullying, discrimination or unemployment. Chronic stress, stressful life events (such as the loss of a partner) or trauma were also considered in the questionnaire.

The survey results were eventually combined with datasets from the extensive University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study. This is a national longitudinal study of Americans’ health and retirement that has been ongoing since 1990. Over the course of the study, participants will be questioned about their lifestyle and health every two years. Blood samples from the subjects are also examined.

The result: Those who are more frequently exposed to social stress have weaker immune systems. This can manifest itself in a reduced number of immune and defense cells such as T lymphocytes or in less active antibodies.

Those who have been exposed to chronic stress or life trauma have been shown to have a lower percentage of naïve CD4 cells. The permanent disadvantage was reflected, for example, in a lower percentage of naïve CD8 cells. CD4 and CD8 are glycoproteins found on the surface of immune system cells such as T cells or macrophages.

Other factors affecting the immune system were also considered, such as body mass index (BMI), alcohol and cigarette consumption, and education level. These also favored the premature aging of the immune system. Social stress indirectly accelerates so-called immune senescence.

Relax as often as possible

The aim of the study was to gain a better understanding of the various factors that influence health in old age. “As the world’s population continues to age, there is a need to understand inequalities in the health of older people,” said Erik Klopack, lead author of the study. According to him, age-related changes in the immune system “play a decisive role in deteriorating health.” With the help of the study, the mechanisms that are partly responsible for accelerated aging of the immune system could be elucidated.

While many of the causes of social stress mentioned cannot simply be eliminated, the study makes it clear how important it is to prevent stress at least where we can control ourselves. Take care of the small relaxation units as often as possible – a walk, a bath or a visit to the sauna or a short phone call with a loved one often works wonders. Rieder

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