Stress, loneliness and a question that is rarely asked | Health & Fitness

We should no longer be surprised when we hear that prolonged stress can increase the risk of health problems such as asthma, ulcers, heart attacks, and strokes. Various studies over the years have suggested as much. But the idea that certain types of stress can not only weaken your immune system, but also prematurely age you, making you even more susceptible to infection takes the conversation to another level.

As the New York Times reports, no one had done extensive research on the relationship between social stress and immune function until gerontologists at the University of Southern California took on the task. Using survey responses from a nationally representative sample of more than 5,700 adults in the United States aged 50 and older as a reference, they determined that higher levels of reported stress were associated with older immune system profiles, regardless of age. the actual age of the subject.

“Any information about how immune aging works, or how it might differ for certain people, is of public health value,” writes Hannah Seo of the Times. She adds Dr. Matthew Yousefzadeh, who researches aging at the University of Minnesota and was not involved in the new research, “These new data touch on a timely concern.” “I think a lot of people right now are looking for ways to rejuvenate, boost or boost the immune system, particularly with age.”

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“While there is a lot of interest in research to rejuvenate our immune systems, science has yet to find a way to reverse aging,” Seo wrote of her interview with Yousefzadeh. “So it’s important to do everything you can to maintain a strong immune system, she said, because once things get bad, you really can’t go back to the way they were.”

The advice to prevent premature aging of immune cells is also not surprising. Strategies to prevent immune aging are not that different from those that will prevent the effects of aging in general. Getting rid of unhealthy habits regarding the things you eat and drink is a good example.

“Focusing on what brings you joy and where you can find social support can help,” advises Seo. “That may mean pursuing hobbies, spending time with loved ones, or unplugging from work or social media when you can.”

Then there is the matter of getting the right exercise.

When it comes to exercise, according to Time magazine’s Jamie Ducharme, there are signs that the pandemic has ushered in a cultural shift in the fitness world. People now “seek the mental health benefits of exercise even more than the physical benefits,” he reports. A recent “trending” story from online fitness class scheduling platform Mindbody found that the top two reasons Americans now exercise are to reduce stress and feel better mentally. “That is a surprising change even from the recent pre-pandemic past; in 2019, managing weight and looking better were the top motivations for many athletes, according to the Mindbody report for that year,” says Ducharme.

Idan Shalev, a biobehavioral health scientist at Pennsylvania State University who studies the effects of stress throughout life, tells the NYT: “Having social support is also very important, like family, friends, because loneliness [also affects] the immune system.”

Recently, a post on HealthExec, an interactive news community for healthcare executives and clinical decision makers, reminded me of the toll loneliness is taking on public health. A recent survey by Cigna and Morning Consult found that 58% of American adults today consider themselves lonely.

Says NYT reporter John Leland, even before the pandemic, there was an “epidemic of loneliness,” affecting physical health and life expectancy in this country. In a Brigham Young University meta-analysis, the risk effects of loneliness, isolation, and weak social networks are assessed as equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

The gist of this “loneliness epidemic within an epidemic” struck me most clearly in a recent op-ed by Dr. T. Salewa Oseni, a surgical oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School. . His thoughts were published on STAT, an online news source covering health, medicine, and the life sciences.

As a cancer surgeon, you are often tasked with breaking the news to people once they have been diagnosed. He remembers a woman who surprised him by not being the least bit relieved when she broke the news that her cancer was curable and her prognosis was excellent.

“I’m ready to die,” she told him. “I don’t see the point of fighting this thing.”

Exploring this response further, he learned that she was a widow and lived alone. Her part-time job as a cashier was her main source of human interactions, which were not satisfying. Returning to that life was something she feared.

“Towards the end of our conversation, I politely asked, ‘What about religious affiliation? Do you have community there?’” she writes.

“Protestant,” she replied. “And no, I don’t go to the toilets anymore.”

“It is a delicate thing, as a doctor, to prescribe a bit of church. But that’s what I suggested,” she says. He told the patient, “Maybe you can recommit to your church or contact your pastor.”

“For many, their belief system is central to their coping strategy. So I think it’s an appropriate time to talk about faith and religion, even though a lot of my colleagues disagree,” he notes.

“I know people like [her] almost every day,” continues Oseni, “people for whom there are no meaningful social connections. But given the importance of these connections in mental and physical health, I think clinicians cannot ignore the role that faith and religion can play in fostering them.”

“Americans increasingly identify as non-religious,” admits Oseni. “Many of my colleagues may believe that religion, faith or spirituality is a private matter outside the purview of medicine. However, this is not entirely true: Doctors are comfortable relegating faith and religion to hospice or palliative care. This reinforces the notion that faith, religion and spirituality are only end-of-life issues and not also ways to foster human connections.”

Oseni had the opportunity to see this patient for a follow-up visit. “Eventually, and after several phone calls, he opted for treatment and was fine,” he recalls. “As I entered the room, his smile caught my attention. Somewhere along the way, someone from his church had dropped by and a coffee date had resurrected a broken friendship. At the end of the visit, she too had a big smile, not only because she had successfully completed the treatment, but because she had once again found a human connection.”

Email Chuck Norris at with health and fitness questions.

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