Stress really does age the body — but it’s possible to recover within days

DURHAM, N.C. — New research reveals that stress ages the body. Thankfully, it only takes days to recover. The biological age of humans and mice rapidly increases in response to various forms of stress, such as surgery, major illness, and childbirth, according to scientists at Duke University School of Medicine.

“This finding of fluid, fluctuating, malleable age challenges the longstanding conception of a unidirectional upward trajectory of biological age over the life course,” says study co-senior author Dr. James White in a media release.

He further notes that previous reports hint at short-term fluctuations in biological age, but the reversibility of such changes and their triggers are still an unexplored area of science. People can be biologically older or younger than their chronological age implies. Moreover, factors such as disease, drug treatment, and lifestyle changes can all influence biological aging, according to increasing evidence from animal models and human studies.

“Despite the widespread acknowledgment that biological age is at least somewhat malleable, the extent to which biological age undergoes reversible changes throughout life and the events that trigger such changes remain unknown,” says Professor Vadim Gladyshev, the study’s co-senior author.

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The researchers used DNA methylation clocks to measure changes in biological age in humans and mice in response to various stressful stimuli. Their results revealed that biological age may increase over relatively short time periods in response to stress but trends back towards its original level following stress recovery. Short-term changes in biological age also occurred during major surgery, pregnancy, and severe COVID-19 in humans or mice. However, the increase in biological age reversed and returned to baseline in the days following these events.

“The findings imply that severe stress increases mortality, at least in part, by increasing biological age.” He suggested that reducing biological age and the ability to recover from stress may be crucial determinants of successful aging and longevity. “Finally, biological age may be a useful parameter in assessing physiological stress and its relief,” Prof. Gladyshev adds.

“Our study uncovers a new layer of aging dynamics that should be considered in future studies. A key area for further investigation is understanding how transient elevations in biological age or successful recovery from such increases may contribute to accelerated aging over the life course,” Dr. White concludes.

The findings appear in the journal Cell Metabolism.

South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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