Just about everyone has experienced the Sunday night dread of having to face another week of commuting, deadlines, and a boss they're not looking forwarding to seeing. Workplace stress obviously takes a toll on your emotional well-being, but can it actually make you older? There's mounting evidence that it could play a role in aging. Here's a look at how a demanding career can affect your body and what you can do about it:
Aging faster. Physicians have long observed that people with stressful careers and lifestyles tend to develop health problems--especially when their jobs carry extreme consequences for mistakes. According to a theory advanced by Michael Roizen, chair of the Wellness Institute at the Cleveland Clinic and co-founder of RealAge.com, many American presidents have aged approximately two years for each calendar year in office. He says there's a difference between chronological age and biological age, the latter of which is an estimate of how your body is aging and can be changed for better and worse through lifestyle habits. Other high-powered jobs like being a CEO can also cause you to age faster, according to Roizen.
Air traffic controllers, for example, analyze complex information to make important decisions that could affect people’s lives. “Jobs like that can cause a release of stress hormones in the body, which can increase the pulse rate and increase blood pressure,” says James McCubbin, a psychology professor at Clemson University. “Over prolonged periods, it can produce considerable wear and tear on the body and contribute to our risk of diseases that are most common in aging populations.” Stress also works indirectly by promoting smoking, obesity, and sedentariness. “People with stressful jobs do not take the time to do the physical activity and get enough sleep,” says Michele Bellantoni, a geriatrician at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Take a break. Cell biologists believe that aging occurs deep within our cells and that the affects of stress can be seen even there. Telomeres, protective caps on the ends of chromosomes, gradually shorten over time as cells divide. Much like the plastic coating on the ends of shoe laces, teleomeres can wear down and fray. Evidence is mounting that chronic stress can speed up this cellular aging process. Elissa Epel, an associate professor of psychiatry at University of California at San Francisco, found that women with the high-stakes job of caring for a child with a chronic illness generally have shorter white blood cell telomeres than women of the same age with healthy children. Still, even the women with healthy children who reported high amounts of stress had shorter telomeres. “Caregiving is particularly stressful, but many other jobs are stressful as well,” says Epel. “It depends on how one copes with it.” So, make sure you find at least a small way to relax each day.
Cultivate friendships. The most stressful jobs involve immediate physical danger. Those include firefighters, law enforcement officers, and soldiers during wartime. “Soldiers have to make split-second decisions with incomplete information,” says McCubbin. “Our veterans returning from combat have a high risk for post-traumatic stress disorder, which can disrupt social relationships and your social support network.” However, any job can be distressing if you’re overloaded with work, have unpleasant supervisors, are having difficulty balancing work with your family life, or are concerned about downsizing. Maintaining family relationships and friendships outside of work is an important way to relieve the frustrations of your job.
Get healthy. Luckily, there's increasing evidence that the aging affects of stress can be counteracted--in some cases. Recent research by Dean Ornish, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco, and colleagues, asked men with low-risk prostate cancer to undergo a three-month lifestyle modification program that included a strict low-fat diet, daily exercise and relaxation techniques, and support-group attendance. At the conclusion of the study, the men had more of an enzyme that prevents telomere shortening than they did three months prior and reported a substantial decrease in psychological distress. Getting enough sleep, exercising, eating healthy foods, and taking mental breaks can do a lot to ease the pressures of work, Bellantoni says.
Renegotiate work stessors. You can also try to neutralize stress at the source, which is often your job. Employees should find a way to take control over any aspects of their job they can. “If the boss swoops down and utterly wastes your time without warning every day, go tell the person how much you value their input and could you meet daily to talk about things,” advises Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford professor and author of Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers: The Acclimated Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping. “You'll control the time, and at least know [what part of] each day you can write off as being wasted.”