Chronic stress doubles the risk of dying from cancer, study warns

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Stress not only wears on the mind, but the body too. Our bodies can generally withstand this, but chronic stress takes an enormous toll that can increase fatal cancer risk over time, according to researchers from the Medical College of Georgia.

“As a response to external stressors, your body releases a stress hormone called cortisol, and then once the stress is over, these levels should go back down,” explains Dr. Justin Xavier Moore, epidemiologist at the Medical College of Georgia and Georgia Cancer Center, in a media release. “However, if you have chronic, ongoing psychosocial stressors, that never allow you to ‘come down,’ then that can cause wear and tear on your body at a biological level.”

Moore and his team studied these potentially deleterious effects by conducting a retrospective analysis including over 41,000 people from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), collected between 1988 and 2019. That database consists of baseline biological measures of participants, including body mass index, diastolic and systolic blood pressure, total cholesterol, hemoglobin A1C (an important diabetes marker), albumin and creatinine (valuable measures of kidney function), and C-reactive protein (a prime inflammatory marker). These values helped the researchers determine the body’s allostatic load, or “wear and tear.”

Participants that accumulated a score of three or higher feel into the “high allostatic load” category. They compared this data to participants from the National Death Index, regulated by the National Center for Health Statistics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to identify which people died from cancer and when they did. The team found that even without adjusting for confounding variables like age and race, those with a high load were 2.4 times more likely to die from cancer than those with a low one.

How does age, health, and race affect this link?

It’s not a solid finding, however, until you adjust for confounders, Moore points out. After controlling for age, the researchers found that people with high allostatic load still have a 28-percent increased risk of dying from cancer. This means that if one of two 20-year-olds had a high allostatic load, that person would be much more likely to suffer death from cancer than their friend.

After adjusting for sex, race, and educational level, high allostatic load resulted in a 21-percent increase. As the team kept adjusting for other factors like smoking or having experienced a heart attack, there was a 14-percent increased risk. Moore and his team struggled to look at race more in-depth, particularly with differences between Black and Hispanic adults. There wasn’t as strong of a relationship — likely due to the incredibly large sample size.

Cancer is the second-leading cause of death, and study authors agree that their results are reflective of the high-stress environment that surrounds people on a daily basis.

“The reason race even matters, is because there are systemic factors that disproportionately affect people of color,” explains Moore. “But even if you take race out, the bottom line is that the environments in which we live, work and play, where you are rewarded for working more and sometimes seen as weak for taking time for yourself, is conducive to high stress which in turn may lead to cancer development and increased morbidity and mortality.”

The findings appear in the journal SSM Population Health.

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About the Author

Shyla Cadogan, RD

Shyla Cadogan is a DMV-Based acute care Registered Dietitian. She holds specialized interests in integrative nutrition and communicating nutrition concepts in a nuanced, approachable way.

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