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Stress-induced increases in biological age can be reversed

The “biological age” is a concept increasingly used in medicine to describe the health of an individual’s cells and tissues. Unlike the chronological age, the biological one is more flexible, and can be influenced by a variety of factors, including stress, disease, lifestyle changes, and environmental exposures. 

Although there have been hints that biological age might be reversible, a new study led by the Brigham and Women’s Hospital has provided the first strong evidence – both from preclinical models and humans – that when stress is relieved, biological age can be restored. 

The experts found that, while stress from surgery, pregnancy, and severe Covid-19 increased signs of biological age, these markers were reversed following recovery –  a discovery which may have major implications for testing anti-aging drugs. The study is published in the journal Cell Metabolism.  

“Traditionally, biological age has been thought to just go up and up, but we hypothesized that it’s actually much more dynamic,” said study lead author Jesse Poganik, a researcher at the Brigham’s Division of Genetics. “Severe stress can trigger biological age to increase, but if that stress is short lived, the signs of biological aging can be reversed.”

The scientists collected data related to biological age from several situations likely to cause severe physiological stress. In one experiment, they collected blood samples from elderly patients undergoing emergency surgery immediately before the surgery, a few days after the surgery, and before discharge from the hospital. 

While signs of biological age increased among patients receiving emergency surgery to repair a hip fracture, they returned to baseline four to seven days after the surgery – a pattern not seen among patients receiving other non-trauma surgeries.

In another experiment, by examining blood samples from pregnant mice and humans from early, late phases of pregnancy, and after giving birth, the experts witnessed a consistent pattern in both mice and humans: biological age increased during the pregnancy, peaking around the time of delivery, but resolved postpartum.

Finally, the researchers examined blood samples from Covid-19 patients who were admitted to intensive care units (ICUs). In this case, although the investigation revealed an increase in biological age that was partially resolved by the time of discharge from the ICU for female patients, no significant change was observed among male patients, suggesting that a severe infectious disease such as Covid-19 can induce a reversible increase in biological age, but with more nuanced and sex-specific results.

Since not all people recover their biological age at the same rate or to the same extent, better understanding how and why biological age increases and how to boost recovery is necessary.

Moreover, since the “clocks” used in this study were biomarkers, they may reflect biological age but could also be driven by other factors that have not yet been identified, calling for further research to disentangle the complex causality behind biological aging.

“Our findings challenge the concept that biological age can only increase over a person’s lifetime and suggest that it may be possible to identify interventions that could slow or even partially reverse biological age. When stress was relieved, biological age could be restored. This means that finding ways to help the body recover from stress could increase longevity,” concluded senior author Vadim Gladyshev, a professor of Medicine at Bingham.

Stress and biological aging 

Stress and biological age are interconnected, as chronic stress can contribute to accelerated biological aging. Biological age refers to the functional and physiological age of an individual, which may differ from their chronological age. Several factors influence biological age, including genetics, lifestyle, and environmental factors. Chronic stress is one such factor that has been shown to have a negative impact on biological age.

Stress can affect biological age in various ways:

Telomere shortening

Telomeres are protective caps at the ends of chromosomes that shorten as cells divide. Shorter telomeres have been associated with aging and age-related diseases. Chronic stress has been shown to accelerate telomere shortening, which in turn, may increase biological age.


Chronic stress can lead to increased inflammation in the body. Inflammation is an important contributor to the aging process and has been linked to various age-related diseases such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Oxidative stress

Chronic stress can lead to an imbalance between the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and the body’s ability to neutralize them, resulting in oxidative stress. Oxidative stress can damage cells and DNA, contributing to aging and age-related diseases.

Hormonal imbalance

Chronic stress can cause hormonal imbalances, such as elevated cortisol levels. High cortisol levels have been linked to accelerated aging, as they can negatively affect various systems in the body, including the immune system, metabolism, and cognitive function.

Negative impact on lifestyle

Chronic stress can lead to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as poor diet, lack of exercise, and substance abuse. These lifestyle factors can negatively impact biological age by promoting the development of age-related diseases and deteriorating overall health.

In conclusion, chronic stress can accelerate biological aging through various mechanisms, including telomere shortening, inflammation, oxidative stress, and hormonal imbalances. It is essential to manage stress effectively and adopt a healthy lifestyle to promote overall health and well-being, which in turn may slow down the aging process.

Best strategies for reducing stress

Reducing stress is essential for maintaining mental and physical health. Here are some effective strategies to help manage and reduce stress:


Regular physical activity has been shown to reduce stress levels, improve mood, and boost overall well-being. Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise per week, along with muscle-strengthening activities on two or more days per week.

Mindfulness and meditation

Practicing mindfulness and meditation can help you become more aware of your thoughts and feelings, allowing you to better manage stress. Techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery can help you relax and reduce stress.


Getting adequate, quality sleep is crucial for stress management. Aim for 7-9 hours of sleep per night and establish a consistent sleep schedule to promote good sleep hygiene.

Social support

Connect with friends and family to share your feelings and concerns. Social support has been shown to help alleviate stress and improve mental health.

Time management

Prioritize tasks, break them down into smaller steps, and set realistic deadlines to help manage stress related to work or daily responsibilities.

Healthy diet

Eating a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats can help provide the necessary nutrients for managing stress and maintaining overall health.

Limit caffeine and alcohol

Excessive caffeine and alcohol consumption can contribute to increased stress levels. Limit your intake and opt for water, herbal tea, or other non-alcoholic beverages instead.

Practice gratitude

Focus on the positive aspects of your life and practice gratitude daily. This can help shift your mindset and reduce stress.

Seek professional help

If stress becomes unmanageable, consider seeking help from a mental health professional, such as a therapist or counselor, who can provide guidance and support.

Engage in hobbies

Participate in activities that bring you joy and relaxation, such as reading, gardening, painting, or playing a musical instrument.

Remember that everyone is different, and what works for one person may not work for another. It’s essential to explore various stress-reduction techniques and find the ones that work best for you.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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