Aging & Premature Aging
Stress can lead to premature aging. Many of the symptoms that we associate with aging are in fact more related to stress. I will give a few examples below. In a relatively high-stress culture, those who have been alive longer typically have spent more time in the fight or flight nervous system, which is why we have created a strong association between the effects of stress and aging. However, some symptoms we would normally associate with aging are occurring younger and younger now as stress levels increase across age groups. This information can therefore be applied both to the elderly, as well as to those who are younger but are experiencing premature aging.
One example of a stress symptom that is commonly considered to be an aging symptom comes from a study cited in Robert Sapolsky’s book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers in the chapter Stress and Memory. This study looked at levels of the class of stress hormone called glucocorticoids in elderly people. Those whose glucocorticoid levels increased over the years since the study started also experienced the greatest shrinking of the hippocampus, which, as discussed in the section on memory formation and memory loss is related to memory problems. This study illustrated that elderly people who are more stressed are also at greater risk for memory problems than those who are less stressed.
In another example, one of the structural changes that occurs during fight or flight is the shoulder blades moving inward and upward. In extreme cases, the shoulder blades can start to move over the top of the shoulders. This creates the hunched posture that is often associated with elderly individuals. This is, in fact, a result of chronic activation of the fight or flight nervous system, and again many elderly people have experienced more fight or flight activation simply due to the greater length of time they have been alive. This hunched posture is not necessarily a permanent fixture, however, as the body is quite resilient and able to create new patters of structure and movement given enough time in the parasympathetic nervous system state, and improved receipt of sensory information.
In a third example, a common problem of aging is incontinence. Incontinence can be caused for a number of reasons, but one is the position of the pelvis. In fight or flight, the pelvis begins to tuck (which is different from a biomechanically correct curl), which tips the pubic bone so that it is more vertical. The bladder normally rests on the pubic bone, but this tilt causes the bladder to have more of a vertical, rather than horizontal, position. In this position, the urine tends to rest right over the urethra, and the extra downward pressure can weaken the urethral sphincter and make it easier for urine to escape. This is something I discuss in more detail in my pelvic floor workshop.
Though not all aspects of aging are preventable, it is certainly possible to encourage healthy aging through stress reduction and to reduce the occurrence of problems such as incontinence, stooped posture, and memory loss that are commonly associated with aging, but in fact have more to do with stress.