Stress can speed ageing, study shows

A lifetime of stress can take its toll on the body and accelerate the ageing process, a study of wild animals suggests.

Soay sheep

Scientists at the University found that wild sheep forced to contend with difficult winter conditions tend to be more vulnerable to illness as they get older.

The findings suggest that the stress has a long-term effect on the sheep’s health.

Cumulative effect

Researchers found that sheep which had been repeatedly exposed to stressful situations, such as several harsh winters over a lifetime, were worst affected.

The study of Soay sheep on the island of St Kilda suggests that persistent or repeated stress has a cumulative effect on long-term health and ageing.

Researchers examined data for a common illness in adult sheep - stomach worms.

They found that as the sheep got older, they tended to be more vulnerable to attack from worms.

Faster ageing

The study also showed that those sheep which had suffered most stress in their lives aged faster than those sheep which had suffered less stress.

Understanding the effects of stress may help scientists better understand the ageing process.

The study, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Natural Environment Research Council, was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

As we get older, our health tends to decline, but in addition to this, environmental factors make us age. Our age in terms of years may not correspond to the body’s true age. In the case of the Soay sheep, exposure to stress may have an irreparable effect on their health.

Adam HaywardSchool of Biological Sciences

Photo credit: Arpat Ozgul