If your driver’s license says one age, but you feel older than that, stress may be to blame. According to a new study published in the journal Cell Metabolism, severe stress causes an increase in biological age, while recovery tends to reverse it.
Unlike your chronological age, which is determined by your birth date, your biological age can be impacted by disease, drug treatment, lifestyle changes, and environmental exposures, among other factors, according to researchers.
“Despite the widespread acknowledgment that biological age is at least somewhat malleable, the extent to which biological age undergoes reversible changes throughout life and the events that trigger such changes remain unknown,” says co-senior study author Vadim Gladyshev of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School in a press release about the study.
Using DNA methylation clocks to study biomarkers of aging, researchers measured changes in biological age in humans and mice in response to various stressful stimuli, including surgically attaching pairs of mice that were three months old and 20 months old. As a result of the procedure, which is known as heterochronic parabiosis, the biological age of the younger mice was increased after the surgery and restored following surgical detachment.
“An increase in biological age upon exposure to aged blood is consistent with previous reports of detrimental age-related changes upon heterochronic blood-exchange procedures,” says first author Jesse Poganik of Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School in the same press release. “However, reversibility of such changes, as we observed, has not yet been reported. From this initial insight, we hypothesized that other naturally occurring situations might also trigger reversible changes in biological age.”
How stressful events impact your biological age
Other temporary changes in biological age occurred during instances of major surgery, pregnancy, and severe COVID-19 in humans or mice. The study found that trauma patients experienced a “strong and rapid” increase in biological age following emergency surgery; however, the increase was reversed and biological age returned to baseline following the recovery period after surgery. In the same way, pregnant patients’ biological ages were restored during postpartum recovery, and patients recovering from COVID-19 had their biological age enhanced after using the immunosuppressive drug tocilizumab.
“The findings imply that severe stress increases mortality, at least in part, by increasing biological age,” says Gladyshev. “This notion immediately suggests that mortality may be decreased by reducing biological age and that the ability to recover from stress may be an important determinant of successful aging and longevity. Finally, biological age may be a useful parameter in assessing physiological stress and its relief.”
How to lower your biological age
While researchers are unclear at this time how short-term changes in biological age will impact lifelong biological aging trajectories, there are some known methods of decreasing one’s biological age include
- eating a healthy diet
- receiving adequate hydration
- exercising on a regular basis
- at least seven hours of sleep per night
Recent research has found that young people who have more beneficial sleep habits are less likely to die early. These habits include not using any sleep medication and feeling well rested after waking up at least five days a week.
Active aging, which involves various dimensions of well-being—such as physical, cognitive, emotional, environmental, social, and spiritual health—can help increase longevity and quality of life as well.
“Our study uncovers a new layer of aging dynamics that should be considered in future studies,” says co-senior study author James White of Duke University School of Medicine. “A key area for further investigation is understanding how transient elevations in biological age or successful recovery from such increases may contribute to accelerated aging over the life course.”