This recent study adds to the body of knowledge of what negative major life events (resulting in lots of stress, anxiety, worry) does to a middle-aged person's health. Negative life events could be an interpersonal conflict (e.g. divorce), a death in the family, financial hardship, and serious medical emergencies. Using MRIs, the researchers found that each fateful life event (FLE), especially those that involve interpersonal relationships, accelerates brain aging about .37 years (about a third of a year). And the more negative life events, the bigger the effect. From Science Daily:
Conflict, a death in the family, financial hardship and serious medical crises are all associated with accelerated physical aging. In a new study, researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine found that such negative fateful life events -- or FLEs -- appear to also specifically accelerate aging in the brain.
Writing in the journal Neurobiology of Aging, a research team, led by senior author William S. Kremen, PhD, professor of psychiatry and co-director of the Center for Behavior Genetics of Aging at UC San Diego School of Medicine, found that major adverse events in life, such as divorce, separation, miscarriage or death of a family member or friend, can measurably accelerate aging in the brains of older men, even when controlling for such factors as cardiovascular risk, alcohol consumption, ethnicity and socioeconomic status, which are all associated with aging risk.
Specifically, they found that on average, one FLE was associated with an increase in predicted brain age difference (PBAD) of 0.37 years. In other words, a single adverse event caused the brain to appear physiologically older by approximately one-third of a year than the person's chronological age, based upon magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
The researchers studied 359 men, ages 57 to 66 years old, participating in the Vietnam Era Twin Study of Aging (VETSA). Researchers asked participants to tally a list of life-changing events over the past two years .... All participants underwent MRI exams and further physical and psychological assessments within one month of completing the most recent self-reports. The MRIs assessed physiological aspects of the brain, such as volume and cortical thickness -- a measure of the cerebral cortex or outer layer of the brain linked to consciousness, memory, attention, thought and other key elements of cognition.
Hatton said exposure to chronic stress has long been associated with biological weathering and premature aging, linked, for example, to oxidative and mitochondrial damage in cells, impaired immune system response and genomic changes. The study's authors said their findings provide a possible link between molecular aging and brain structure changes in response to major stressful life events. They do note that the study was a snapshot of a narrow demographic: older, predominantly white, males. It is not known whether females or other ethnicities would show similar findings.