Stress and the Genetics of Aging

If you “feel” like the stress in your life is aging you faster, it is. Research into stress and the genetics of aging find that stress can indeed accelerate the rate of aging itself. Studies have shown that when stress-related hormones are injected into young healthy rats, the hormones quickly turn the rats’ hair gray, wrinkle their skin and age their muscles and bones. When you stress an animal too much, it ages quickly and dies. If you don’t stress an animal at all, it atrophies and dies. However, if you deal with stress properly in life and even in animal research, the organism grows stronger and lives longer.
In Tom Johnson’s laboratory at the University of Colorado, Boulder, they have been studying genes that have been implicated in contributing to aging for a long time, genes that appear to be stress response genes. As the name implies, these are genes that help us respond to stress well. One of our country’s top biologists, George Baker, uses stress response in his definition of aging. He defines aging as ”the decline over time in the fitness of a person to withstand the stresses of day-to-day living.” Probably the most commonly believed theory of aging is that it is genetically programmed. That somewhere in our genetic code are these evil little genes that at a certain time would pounce on us and make us get old. Sort of natures idea of planned obsolescence. For thirty years scientists were looking for such genes and for thirty years they were unable to find any genes that behaved that way. In the nineteen seventies a scientist at the National Institutes of Aging, Dick Cutler said “maybe we are asking the question wrong? Maybe instead of looking for genes that make us grow old maybe we should be looking for genes that are trying to keep us alive? As soon as scientists turned the question around they started finding those genes. Tom Johnson at the University of Colorado at Boulder is credited with having discovered two of those genes. What they did was over many generations of C Elegans worms, they had graduate students separate out all the longest living worms, selectively breeding long living worms with other long living worms. After hundreds of generations bred this way the ended up with one strain of worms living 30% longer than all the other worms. Since worms don’t have very complicated genes the were able to isolate the one gene that was different in the long living strain. That gene is now called AGE 1 for the first aging gene discovered. When they mutated the gene they got even greater extensions in lifespan. Tom and his lab then set about trying to discover how that gene worked and found that it worked by controlling a second gene called SOD 1 or Superoxidedismutase 1 . Right now as you read this that gene is working overtime to try to protect you from any fats you may have eaten lately or any cigarette smoke you may have been exposed to. Toms work and work on about fifteen other genes that have been implicated in aging are confirming what Dick Cutler asked “these seem to be genes that are trying to keep us alive not genes that are trying to kill us off.

The Genes of Aging are Actually Stress Genes

Nowadays these aging genes are called LAG genes or Longevity assurance genes. So far all the genes being studied are stress genes. Stress even effects us at a genetic level. Genes are turned on and off in response to stresses in our environment. Basically, it works like this. when you stress an organism by increasing or decreasing the temperature of its environment or by changing anything else like diet, exercise and even mental and emotional stress the organism has to respond. Genes are turned on and off in response to the stress and the animal grows stronger to deal with the stress and survive. In Toms Laboratory they have a cool way to tell what turns on these Longevity Assurance Genes. They attach the gene from the tail of a firefly to it and when the gene turns on it will glow green under a microscope. When subjected to too much stress the animal will die. If not subjected to any stress and living a life of comfort the animals will quickly atrophy and die. But if subjected to a little stress and then allowed to rest the animal grows stronger and lives longer. It’s like when we exercise. If you do 1000 biceps curls with a 100-pound weight, that is too much stress and your arm may fall off. If you do no exercise, pack the arm in cotton and never move it, the arm will atrophy which means “to die”. But if you exercise a little and then rest, the genes kick on and the arm grows stronger each time you do that. We all instinctively experience this in our own lives. Have you ever had something stressful happen and after we struggle to survive the stress looking back on it years later we are stronger for having had that experience. This phenomenon is known as heat shock response because it was first discovered in baby chicks subjected to extreme heat. Farmers traditionally had major losses of baby chicks when temperatures would soar over 100 degrees for any length of time. It was not worth spending thousands of dollars to air condition a barn for those few day’s and the deaths were considered an acceptable loss. Then some farmers discovered that if you took the eggs before they hatch in an incubator and gradually increased the temperature over 100 degrees, then let it cool off each time you stressed the chicks a little and let them rest they grew a little stronger and more resistant to the stress. By the time they hatched the chicks were easily able to withstand the heat and did not die when the temperature soared in the barn. Since then scientists have identified the genes called heat shock protein transcription factor 70 genes. They have also confirmed that this works with many different kinds of stress, not just heat. and forms a basic stress response mechanism. This provides a genetic mechanism for many different aging phenomena like caloric restriction, accelerated aging due to stress and hormonal effects on aging. This also explains aging on a human and social level in that studies with centenarians have shown constantly that people who remain healthy late into life have great stress coping mechanisms. You don’t live to be a hundred years old without having some stress and the better you are at dealing with it the longer you will live.

Evolution may be the Cause

There even is some evolutionary rationale for this mechanism. Evolution is about survival of the species and if you respond successfully to stress in your environment you are more likely to survive and nature would have an interest in selecting you for survival by turning on genes that would enable you to live longer. On the other hand if you were unsuccessful in dealing with stress you would threaten your own survival as well as the survival of those around you and nature would have an interest in removing you from the gene pool.

The Genes are Mediated by Hormones

Another theory of aging takes it from the level of genes to the chemical messengers that tell genes what to do the hormones. The Endocrine theory of aging can be used to explain the role of hormones and particularly the stress hormones in aging. If you “feel” like the stress in your life is aging you faster, it is. Stress can accelerate the rate of aging itself. Studies have shown that when stress-related hormones adrenaline, cortisol and adrenocorticotropic hormone are injected into young healthy rats, the hormones quickly turn the rats’ hair gray, wrinkle their skin and age their muscles and bones. Scientists have confirmed that heat shock response is modulated by the HPA axis, the hypothalamic, pituitary-adrenal axis. This system modulates stress response from a cellular level to the social level. From gene expression to stress response, our mind, endocrine glands and immune system connect up through chemical messenger molecules sensitive to our thoughts, emotions and reactions, known as neuropeptides. Neurotransmitters that can greatly affect the enjoyment of life are norepinephrine and serotonin. Norepinephrine is known as the “happiness and contentedness hormone.” Serotonin, among other functions, determines the quality of our sleep. The conditions that destroy the quality of life for many people often can be traced to a decline in these chemical messengers. These conditions include depression, loneliness, boredom and sleep disorders. In a very real way, the quality of our lives depends in large part on the quality of the way we live our lives on a daily basis.

Another Good Reson to Practice Tai Chi

T’ai Chi seems to favorably enhance stress response in the aging process. In one study, scientists were able to show a fifty percent reduction in normal age-related functional decline by subjects practicing the exercise of T’ai Chi as compared to sedentary control subjects. In this study, scientists measured subjects’ VO2 max, a test of aerobic fitness and a biomarker of aging. They showed that T’ai Chi not only improved the aerobic fitness of subjects but had also slowed the rate of aging in the heart, lungs, circulatory system and musculature of older adults who practiced it. Although traditional forms of vigorous exercise have shown that people reach higher levels of fitness, they also age at a faster rate. The T’ai Chi seems to slow the rate of aging decline beyond even that of normal exercise.
From gene expression to stress response, our mind, endocrine glands, and immune system connect up through chemical messenger molecules sensitive to our thoughts, emotions, and reactions, known as neuropeptides. Neurotransmitters that can greatly effect the enjoyment of life are norepinephrine and serotonin. Norepinephrine is known as the “happiness and contentedness hormone.” Serotonin, among other functions, determines the quality of our sleep. The conditions that destroy the quality of life for many people often can be traced to a decline in these chemical messengers. These conditions include depression, loneliness, boredom and sleep disorders. In a very real way, the quality of our lives depends in large part on the quality of the way we live our lives on a daily basis.
So, what can we do to combat these effects naturally? Physical activity increases
arousal and this, in turn, increases serotonin and norepinephrine as well as endorphins – the body’s natural painkillers. These changes lead to a sort of physiological toughening known as “mastery. ” After 30 years of experience at the Fort Logan Mental Health Center, recently retired Chief of the Adolescent Unit and former Chief of the Geriatric Unit, George Kerin has found that certain behavioral activities such as daily exercise, meditation, reading, memorizing or learning new things such as T’ai Chi can be extremely useful in combating common depressions by stimulating production of these neurotransmitter chemicals naturally in the body. Anti-depressant drugs try to replace this process artificially, but as with any drug, there are often side effects.
So …take a T’ai Chi Stress Break today. Learn to handle the physical and emotional effects of the stress that comes with the pressures of day to day responsibilities. Scientific studies have found that those who practice T’ai Chi have more energy, improved sense of wellbeing and self-esteem, and less depression and anxiety. Slow down the pace of your life with T’ai Chi Chuan. “Even the simplest physical activity becomes enjoyable when it is transformed so as to produce flow” say’s Mihaly Cziksent, former chair of the University of Chicago Dept. of Psychology.
T’ai Chi is a fun way to relax, be physically active, and make some friends. Take a class and learn specific exercises for identifying the sources of daily stress and dealing with time pressures. Take better control of the health-harming effects of stress. While maximizing energy and minimizing injuries you can learn to accomplish more work with less effort and have more of yourself for your family and friends.
An art steeped in a long history and a sense of mystery most Americans find it difficult to accept T’ai Chi and traditional Chinese health claims on faith alone. To get the most benefit from any exercise meditation program, seek out qualified, trained professionals who can ensure that you get the benefits of both health and well-being. T’ai Chi takes limited space and equipment. Instructors should teach meditation and concentration while cultivating physical fitness in a relaxed enjoyable atmosphere.
Mastering T’ai Chi means mastering the stresses in our lives. As Plato said, “He who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of [living].”

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