Saturday, July 31, 2010

How Bad is Stress on Your Health?

Here's a bit from an excellent article by Jonah Lehrer in Wired Magazine about stress and its effects. A key result is that executives talking about their "stressful work" are not really stressed out. It is the employees at the bottom of the pecking order who suffer from the bad kind of stress that wrecks your health:
A few years ago, Donald Redelmeier, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, led a study of Academy Award-winning actors. His hypothesis was that having an Oscar gave people more control over their stressful careers. Instead of being forced to accept bad roles or work on mediocre movies just for the money, these stars could pick and choose their parts. This creative control, in turn, would lead to improved health outcomes. Redelmeier compared the award winners to two groups: (1) actors who had appeared in the same film as a nominated actor and didn’t get a nomination and (2) actors who had been nominated for an Academy Award but never won. The results were clear: People with Oscars lived, on average, four years longer than their less-successful peers, which represented a 28 percent reduction in death rate. As Redelmeier notes, this longevity boost is roughly equal to the effect that would come from “curing all cancers in all people for all time.”
Here's another take on this same effect:
While doctors speculated for years that increasing rates of cardiovascular disease in women might be linked to the increasing number of females employed outside the home, that correlation turned out to be nonexistent. Working women didn’t have more heart attacks. There were, however, two glaring statistical exceptions to the rule: Women developed significantly more heart disease if they performed menial clerical work or when they had an unsupportive boss. The work, in other words, wasn’t the problem. It was the subordination.
Here's a bit more from the article that details the downside effects of stress:
Chronic stress, it turns out, is an extremely dangerous condition. And not just for baboons: People are as vulnerable to its effects as those low-ranking male apes. While stress doesn’t cause any single disease — in fact, the causal link between stress and ulcers has been largely disproved — it makes most diseases significantly worse. The list of ailments connected to stress is staggeringly diverse and includes everything from the common cold and lower-back pain to Alzheimer’s disease, major depressive disorder, and heart attack. Stress hollows out our bones and atrophies our muscles. It triggers adult-onset diabetes and is a leading cause of male impotence. In fact, numerous studies of human longevity in developed countries have found that psychosocial factors such as stress are the single most important variable in determining the length of a life. It’s not that genes and risk factors like smoking don’t matter. It’s that our levels of stress matter more.


The emergence of stress as a major risk factor is largely a testament to scientific progress: The deadliest diseases of the 21st century are those in which damage accumulates steadily over time. (Sapolsky refers to this as the “luxury of slowly falling apart.”) Unfortunately, this is precisely the sort of damage that’s exacerbated by emotional stress. While modern medicine has made astonishing progress in treating the fleshy machine of the body, it is only beginning to grapple with those misfortunes of the mind that undo our treatments.

The power of this new view of stress — that our physical health is strongly linked to our emotional state — is that it connects a wide range of scientific observations, from the sociological to the molecular. On one hand, stress can be described as a cultural condition, a byproduct of a society that leaves some people in a permanent state of unease. But that feeling can also be measured in the blood and urine, quantified in terms of glucocorticoids and norepinephrine and adrenal hormones. And now we can see, with scary precision, the devastating cascade unleashed by these chemicals. The end result is that stress is finally being recognized as a critical risk factor, predicting an ever larger percentage of health outcomes.
I enjoyed this sly dig at the dysfunctional US government while considering the chemicals -- glucocoricoids -- that underlie stress:
But glucocorticoids have a nasty side effect: When they linger in the bloodstream, as they might due to chronic stress related to low rank, damage accumulates. It’s the physiological version of a government devoting too many resources to its defense department, Sapolsky says. The body is so worried about war that it doesn’t fix the roads or invest in schools.
Go read the whole article to find out how Robert Sapolsky is progressing in developing a "vaccine" to treat stress.

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