Researchers find more accurately how stress may lead to ill-health later in life

Scientists at Queen’s find key indicators can discover early signs of chronic conditions

About a quarter of UK adults are diagnosed with two or more chronic conditions. Photograph: iStock

About a quarter of UK adults are diagnosed with two or more chronic conditions. Photograph: iStock

 

The stress “may kill you”, as the old assumption goes, but now scientists have hit upon a way to more reliably find out how it affects our physical health.

Researchers at Queen’s University Belfast have been measuring a person’s “biomarkers”, key indicators taken through blood tests that can ascertain exactly how stressful life might translate into ill-health or physical “wear and tear” later on.

Early signs of stress-related ageing, which can eventually lead to the diagnosis of chronic conditions and even earlier death, may be difficult to spot in younger healthy people even though the long-term benefits of intervention is greatest for such groups.

“For many reasons people experience different levels of stress to others while the impacts of stress can also vary substantially across individuals,” explained Dr Luke Barry from the Centre for Public Health at Queen’s University, lead researcher on the study published in the journal Social Science & Medicine.

About a quarter of UK adults are diagnosed with two or more chronic conditions, although this is concentrated in lower socioeconomic groups. This generally increases over the next 15 years and becomes more common with age – about two thirds of those over 65 have two or more chronic conditions.

“Using biomarkers to measure such impacts [of stress] helps provide a fuller picture of someone’s likely health trajectory. Early intervention is key to change an individual’s health journey and to really make a difference,” Dr Barry said.

Analysing more than 7,000 blood samples, the team at Queen’s created an “allostatic load (AL)” or “score” to help measure risk.

They compared this score with self-reported physical health, taking into account a number of factors such as age, income, education, exercise and diet.

When looking at the AL for two apparently similar individuals – same gender, age, lifestyles, personality and social circumstances – who rated their physical health the same, the AL index was able to predict whose health was likely to decline faster.

“The research shows how the biomarkers can predict physical health over and above how people self-assessed, providing much more accurate and objective data to predict an individual’s health journey,” said Dr Barry.

“Screening people this way could transform the health trajectory of people through implementing intervention and education, extending healthy years and life.”

The research suggests that information on allostatic load, based on simple blood tests, could be a catalyst for a change in lifestyle or other interventions that delay premature ageing and lower mortality risk.

According to the researchers, the ability to identify early risk in such a way would delay the occurrence of chronic illnesses often linked to chronic stress.

“If we know that someone is more prone to chronic stress and its physical impacts, we can then find ways to manage it,” said Dr Barry. “This would prevent the snowball effect that chronic stress can have on our health as individuals, as well as our healthcare systems.”