Stress accelerates immune aging, study finds: Traumatic life events, discrimination prematurely weaken body’s mix of immune cells

Stress — in the form of traumatic events, job strain, everyday stressors and discrimination — accelerates aging of the immune system, potentially increasing a person’s risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and illness from infections such as COVID-19, according to a new USC study.

The research, published June 13 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), could help explain disparities in age-related health, including the unequal toll of the pandemic, and identify possible points for intervention.

“As the world’s population of older adults increases, understanding disparities in age-related health is essential. Age-related changes in the immune system play a critical role in declining health,” said lead study author Eric Klopack, a postdoctoral scholar in the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. “This study helps clarify mechanisms involved in accelerated immune aging.”

As people age, the immune system naturally begins a dramatic downgrade, a condition called immunosenescence. With advanced age, a person’s immune profile weakens, and includes too many worn-out white blood cells circulating and too few fresh, “naive” white blood cells ready to take on new invaders.

Immune aging is associated not only with cancer, but with cardiovascular disease, increased risk of pneumonia, reduced efficacy of vaccines and organ system aging.

But what accounts for drastic health differences in same-age adults? USC researchers decided to see if they could tease out a connection between lifetime exposure to stress — a known contributor to poor health — and declining vigor in the immune system.

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