Image of depressed or anxious older adult with head in hands

Exposure to social stress is associated with signs of accelerated immune system aging, a first-time study of older U.S. adults has found.

The researchers looked at social stress and the distributions of T cells in more than 5,700 study participants aged 50 years and older. T cells are a genetic marker of immune age, which can determine how well the body fends off disease. Immunity tends to decline as humans age, and age-related changes to the immune system play a key role in morbidity and mortality, the authors said. 

Social stressors studied included life trauma, chronic stress, everyday discrimination and lifetime discrimination. These factors were indeed linked to changes in immune aging markers, including increases in some T cells and decreases in others, the investigators found. These changes occurred no matter chronological age, sex and race and/or ethnicity.

The results provide evidence that psychosocial stress may contribute to accelerated immune aging, they reported.

“This study provides important insights on the role of social stress in immune aging,” the authors wrote. “Interventions aimed at reducing stress or increasing resilience may be needed to address these inequalities,” they concluded.

Full findings were published in PNAS.

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