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Your biological age can rapidly increase during stressful times but it can quickly return to normal after a period of recovery. Ana Luz Crespi/Stocksy
  • A study published in Cell Metabolism has found that biological age increases with stress, but returns to baseline following recovery from stress.
  • Experts say exposure to stress can cause inflammation and damage to DNA in cells, which in turn can accelerate aging.
  • A lower biological age is linked with a lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease, immune dysfunction, metabolic disorders, and other age-related conditions.
  • Eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, managing stress, and sleeping well can slow your biological age.

Every year, the number of candles on your birthday cake indicates your age. But how old are you really?

Your chronological age is the number of years you have been alive. That one’s easy. Your biological age, on the other hand, is used to decipher how old your body behaves and feels.

It is often used as an indication of overall health and can be influenced by lifestyle factors.

A new study published in the journal Cell Metabolismfound that the biological age of humans undergoes a rapid increase in response to diverse forms of stress.

However, it also found this aging can be reversed following a period of recovery from stress.

Commenting on the results, co-senior study author James White of Duke University School of Medicine said, “Previous reports have hinted at the possibility of short-term fluctuations in biological age, but the question of whether such changes are reversible has, until now, remained unexplored.”

So, when it comes to stress and accelerated aging, what’s actually happening at a physical level? How exactly does it cause our bodies to age?

Tunc Tiryaki, the founder of the London Regenerative Institute, said chronic stress triggers a “cascade of biological responses in the body.”

Firstly, it triggers the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which can cause inflammation and damage to DNA and cells if produced excessively for a prolonged period of time.

Secondly, long-term stress can lead to oxidative stress.

“This is an imbalance between the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and the body’s ability to repair the damage caused by these ROS,” Tiryaki explained. “Oxidative stress can damage cells, proteins, and DNA, leading to premature aging.”

Next up, is how stress affects telomeres, which are protective caps on the end of chromosomes that shorten with each cell division and are thought to be a marker of biological aging.

“Chronic stress has been associated with shorter telomeres, which can contribute to premature aging,” Tiryaki noted.

Once the stress is removed, your body can begin to recover and the physiological processes that were damaged can return to their normal levels of functioning.

“The restoration of these processes to normal levels can help reduce the burden on cells and slow down the aging process,” Tiryaki explained.

Additionally, he said, the body has mechanisms in place to repair damaged cells and tissues, and these mechanisms can become more active once the stress is reduced.

“For instance, cells can begin to produce more antioxidants and activate DNA repair mechanisms, which can help reduce the damage caused by oxidative stress,” he explained.

The benefits of a lower biological age are many. It’s linked with a lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease, immune dysfunction, metabolic disorders, and other age-related conditions.

So, given that your biological age is a key indicator of overall health and longevity, you might be wondering how to measure yours.

Officially, you’ll need a biological age test that measures bio-markers like DNA methylation, telomere length, and blood and urine samples.

However, looking at your everyday habits can help you gauge your biological health as well.

If you are within a healthy weight range, sleep well, effectively manage stress, and don’t lead a sedentary lifestyle, it’s probably safe to assume that your biological age is a few years younger than your chronological age.

You might be wondering if you can slow or even reverse your biological age. It probably won’t surprise you that adopting a healthy lifestyle is key.

Eating a healthy diet, limiting alcohol consumption, and not smoking are all great ways to improve your overall health, and in turn, lower your biological age.

Professor Denis Noble, biologist and co-founder of the Oxford Longevity Project, recommends regular exercise as well, noting that it’s an incredible stress reliever.

Given that stress appears to have such a profound effect on biological age, you’ll need to find effective ways to manage it. “In order to help the body cope with stressors, rest and sleep are essential because when we sleep, we are also fasting. This triggers the body’s in-built cellular waste removal system, which slows down the rate at which we age,” Noble explained.

In addition to this advice, Noble said that making time for the activities you enjoy is a great way to keep the body young.

“Singing, dancing, walking, any of the things that create joy and excitement [are a good idea]. Singing also has the added benefit of activating the vagus nerve which is connected to all the major organs and instructs them to rest, relax and repair,” he said.

Tunc Tiryaki isn’t surprised by the results of this study.

“Based on scientific evidence, it’s well-established that stress has detrimental effects on our physical and mental health, and it can accelerate the aging process,” he said.

Likewise, according to Tiryaki, the finding that biological age is restored upon recovery from stress is interesting but not entirely unexpected.

He noted that many studies suggest that stress-reducing techniques such as mindfulness meditation, regular exercise, and good-quality sleep can lead to improvements in various biological markers associated with aging.

“Our bodies have the ability to repair and recover from damage caused by stress, so it makes sense that this recovery process can also restore our biological age,” Tiryaki surmised.

Noble holds a similar view to Tiryaki, but said the results of the latest study do not give us the “full picture.”

He noted that some forms of stress can actually be good for you, like the kinds of stress you experience while in a hot sauna or an ice bath or during intense exercise, for example.

“Organisms that are not resilient to stress can, of course, succumb to it. However, the key to health is how organisms cope with stress. Or in other words, how quickly they can recover and be ‘on top’ again,” he said.

Noble noted that one of the reasons that biological age is restored upon recovery is because we adapt and learn how to cope with it.

“Athletes know this phenomenon well,” he pointed out. “High-performance runners and gymnasts push their tolerance of stress to increasing levels, guided by their trainers, and the result is improvement in muscle function and strength.”

While this kind of stress may lead to physical improvements, it’s cumulative stress – a kind of chronic, emotional stress – that may do the real damage.

A study published in Translational Psychiatry in 2021 found that an increase in cumulative stress was associated with accelerated aging, and that emotional regulation reduced it.