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Wear and Tear of Stress: The Psychoneurobiology of Aging

utonomic, immune and neuroendocrine systems. If the brain is under too much stress for too long, said McEwen, “we can see structural and functional remodeling changes that affect how it functions.”

“These brain changes, which appear to be reversible, are able to change by not only pharmaceutical agents but also by lifestyle changes like exercise, diet and social support,” said McEwen.

In another review of the current literature on the interactions of the brain, stress and the endocrine system, more evidence shows how cumulative stress and the occurrence of disease may define age more than chronological aging. According to the review, certain diseases start to occur when the anabolic hormone levels start to decrease – when the tissue builders like growth hormones, testosterone, estrogen and thyroid functions start to drop off and when the catabolic hormones start to increase. These hormones, the tissue fuelers, can become too active and actually break the body down. Cortisol – a stress hormone – can become more reactive when responding to acute challenges as one gets older.

This imbalance between the anabolic and catabolic hormones is likely to be responsible for many of the psychiatric and medical diseases associated with aging, said researcher Elissa S. Epel, PhD, of the University of California, San Francisco. According to a model of neuroendocrine aging, “subtle yet chronic changes in hormonal patterns can exert pathological effects on health over time.”

It is also known, said Epel, that chronically elevated cortisol reduces lean mass, bone density and shifts fat distributions that can precede the onset of many age-related diseases like osteoporosis, metabolic syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease and major depression. But, she added, certain behavioral factors, like lifestyle and exercise can modify some of these hormonal effects that seem to accelerate aging.

Compared to healthy older adults under 100 years of
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