Aging & Longevity

Stanford Researchers Propose Psychological Stress as a Critical Hallmark of Aging

Stanford scientists propose that the impact of psychological elements like trauma and depression are key drivers of aging.

By Bennett M. Sherman

Key Points:

  • Stanford researchers propose adding “psychogenic aging” to the list of key hallmarks of aging, which may propel new advances in patient psychological care for longevity.
  • Mental well-being factors like depression and loneliness may contribute more to aging than traditional factors such as smoking.
  • Psychological adversity’s accelerating effects on aging could be modifiable through resilience and pro-longevity mindsets.

Published in Translational Psychiatry, Snyder and colleagues from Stanford University propose adding psychological factors influencing overall mental well-being and their effects on aging (collectively called psychogenic aging) to the repertoire of hallmarks of aging. According to the researchers, doing so will help integrate such psychological factors into the broader study of aging research. This may fuel novel advancements against mental illness and age-related diseases to thereby prolong human lifespan.

Stanford Researchers Believe Psychogenic Aging Meets Generally Agreed-Upon Criteria for a Hallmark of Aging

The hallmarks of aging, a list of physiological processes, are meant to help us understand and characterize biological drivers of aging. They include things like reduced DNA repair, inflammation, malfunctioning cell powerhouses — mitochondria— and other additional dysfunctional processes.

While there are no agreed-upon criteria to define a hallmark of aging, there is a general consensus that any given hallmark should have five attributes. These attributes include the following:

1) Being significantly associated with aging

2) Having biological plausibility

3) Having predictive value regarding contributions to aging

4) Being modifiable

5) Having broad significance across different species

Snyder and colleagues posit that psychogenic aging has all five of these attributes. As for being significantly associated with aging, psychological features like stress, depression, and anxiety have been associated with acceleration of biological age — a measurement of age based on cellular function. Moreover, psychogenic aging has biological plausibility given that psychological risk factors drive stress that is linked to age-related conditions like dementia and cardiovascular disease. What’s more, psychological factors related to childhood adversity are predictive of premature death. Regarding the modifiable nature of psychological factors, animal studies suggest that recovery from stress slows accelerated aging from stress, and a human study shows a link between meditation and a slowed rate of cellular aging. All of these associations point to psychogenic aging broadly contributing to aging.

Some of the psychological factors influencing psychogenic aging include stress, trauma, purpose, optimism, and social networking.
(Faria et al., 2024 | Translational Psychiatry) Some of the psychological factors influencing psychogenic aging include stress, trauma, purpose, optimism, and social networking.

Accelerating Research for Therapies Initiating a Pro-Longevity Mindset

Because psychogenic aging meets each of the generally accepted attributes of the hallmarks of aging, the Stanford-based researchers believe it should receive recognition as a bona fide hallmark. They say that achieving this designation may propel future research that untangles new details of how psychological risk factors contribute to aging. This, they believe, may help with designing novel interventions to counteract chronic mental states, such as depression, that thwart a longer life.

Snyder and colleagues also point to evidence showing that a pro-longevity mindset can lead to a longer lifespan. Studies have shown that longevity is associated with believing that life is meaningful, having a positive disposition, and marital satisfaction. These associations may relate to lower activation of a brain region that controls fear-based emotions — the amygdala — thereby lowering stress in older adults.

The researchers propose several origins for a pro-longevity mindset. It may be acquired gradually by longer-living individuals, developed as a stress-coping mechanism, or adopted early in life as an anti-aging strategy. Regardless, if researchers were to find that psychological therapies designed to initiate this pro-longevity mindset reduce biological age, this could help confirm the efficacy of interventions.

According to Snyder and colleagues, designating psychogenic aging as a hallmark of aging is of paramount importance to sway researchers’ focus toward psychological factors influencing longevity. With more emphasis on psychological risk factors and how they relate to psychogenic aging, new advancements in modifying mental states and initiating a pro-longevity mindset may come at a faster pace. This may serve as a promising way to extend human lifespan, especially for those who have experienced severe trauma, depression, loneliness, and/or boredom — all precipitating high levels of stress.


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