Worry more, live longer

Stress may not be the one-way ticket to an early grave that most of us assume. In fact, it could do wonders for the immune system and even keep cancers at bay. Kate Hilpern examines the evidence

Next time the anxiety induced by another gloomy bank balance or the threat of yet more redundancies in your office convinces you that the recession should come with a government health warning, think again.

Dr Marios Kyriazis, a GP and expert in geriatric medicine, is among a growing number of health professionals claiming that stress isn't the one-way road to illness and an early grave that most of us assume. In fact, provided it's relatively short-term, it appears that stress can do wonders for the immune system and ageing process, not to mention keeping the likes of Alzheimer's, arthritis and certain cancers at bay.



"We tend to blame stress for everything from exhaustion to bad moods to heart disease, but it's all a myth. Far from being bad for you, stress is vital for survival. I advise people to seek out stress because it can make you live longer. I actually think the recession – even if it means losing your job – will, for many people, be good for their health. It's people who have routine, uncomplicated, unchallenging lives that tend to be harder hit by ill-health," explains Kyriazis, who is president of the British Longevity Society and author of the book Anti-Ageing Medicines (Watkins).



It's the degree of stress that is crucial. "There's a lot of research and it all points to mild and moderate stress working in the body's favour by increasing the production of regenerative proteins that nourish brain cells, enabling them to function at peak capacity. These cells reinforce the neural connections and physical repair pathways that usually deteriorate with age," he says.



In particular, short-term stress benefits memory function and can even protect against diseases such as Alzheimer's, says Kyriazis. Some research also suggests stress may staunch oestrogen production, thereby helping to prevent breast cancer. Meanwhile, another study found that people who experience moderate levels of stress before surgery had a better recovery than those with high or low levels. Another found children of mothers who had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol during pregnancy were developmentally ahead of those of women with lower levels.



Research by Texas University even revealed that people who spent most of their lives in undemanding jobs had a 43 per cent risk of dying prematurely – indicating that a regular dose of pressure at work could keep the doctors away.



"If you think about it, all this is entirely logical. If your body is stressed, it is stimulated and therefore continually has its immunological defences tested and provoked, which strengthens it," says Kyriazis.



If you're susceptible to colds, it's definitely time to inject some adrenalin into your life, according to research. A really tight deadline at work or an arduous job interview can trigger hormones that prepare the immune system for danger, as well as improving heart function, both of which help the body fight infections. One study on women showed short bouts of mental or physical activity before getting the flu shot produced more antibodies. "One US scientist put it perfectly, saying that we wouldn't have evolved a fight-or-flight system that allows us to run from the jaws of a lion only to succumb to the jaws of a bacterium," says Doug Carroll, health psychologist at the University of Birmingham.



Carroll and his colleague Anna Phillips, also a health psychologist at the University of Birmingham, have been involved in some of the most recent work around stress and health. "I don't think there's any argument that chronic stress – that is, severe and enduring stress brought on by things like bereavement, long-term unemployment or a bad marriage – is bad for most of the body's systems," says Phillips. "But when it comes to short-term stress, we found the 'stress equals ill health or death' model is more complicated than you might assume."



In their most recent study, participants were asked to do things such as public speaking or sums under a time pressure while being harassed. Interestingly, Carroll and Phillips found that those who showed the greatest cardiovascular response to these acute stress tasks were less likely to become obese, less likely to report depression and crucially more likely to report good health. Phillips emphasises there is no proven causal link, but she'd like to see more research around this.



The general advice on recognising good stress from bad is asking yourself whether you feel a sense of accomplishment or excitement either during or afterwards. A feeling of complete overwhelming, on the other hand, generally points to bad stress. If stress continues longer than 24 hours, it can also start to sour the good benefits of stress.



Phillips is sceptical, though, about whether people's self-perceptions of stress are reliable. "When we get people to do sums under a time pressure, some participants say they found it really stressful and yet we don't find much of a reaction. Others say they felt relatively unstressed and yet their heart rate was up by 20 beats a minute."



It wouldn't be fair to ignore the studies that suggest short-term stress can precipitate acute illness and even sudden death. Increases in admissions to coronary care units and death from heart attacks were recorded after earthquakes hit California, Greece and Japan – and similar effects have also been found during military conflicts. The number of heart attacks treated in Tel Aviv's main coronary care unit in late January 1991, the peak of the Iraqi Scud missile attacks on the city, was almost twice as high as usual.



Then there's football. Yes, really. Between 1995 and 1999, on days when the local professional football team lost at home, relative to days with other match outcomes, death from heart attacks and strokes was found to increase, again by 25 per cent, in men in the North East of England. But, points out Carroll, it is quite possible that all these people already had the risk markers for a heart attack. "The acute stress response could well have been the trigger rather than the cause," he says.



Dr John MacLeod, a GP and reader in clinical epidemiology and primary care at Bristol University, is certainly unconvinced there is a proven link with stress. One of his studies – of 5,600 men in 27 workplaces in Scotland – found a lower incidence of heart disease and death overall in those most likely to say their lives were stressful.

News
The guide, since withdrawn, used illustrations and text to help people understand the court process (Getty)
newsMinistry of Justice gets law 'terribly wrong' in its guide to courts
News
Bobbi Kristina Brown with her mother Whitney Houston in 2011
people
News
Starting the day with a three-egg omelette could make people more charitable, according to new research
scienceFeed someone a big omelette, and they may give twice as much, thanks to a compound in the eggs
News
Top Gun actor Val Kilmer lost his small claims court battle in Van Nuys with the landlord of his Malibu mansion to get back his deposit after wallpapering over the kitchen cabinets
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
The actress Geraldine McEwan was perhaps best known for playing Agatha Christie's detective, Miss Marple (Rex)
peopleShe won a Bafta in 1991 for her role in Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
News
newsPatrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
News
Robert Fraser, aka Groovy Bob
peopleA new show honours Robert Fraser, one of the era's forgotten players
Life and Style
Torsten Sherwood's Noook is a simple construction toy for creating mini-architecture
tech
Sport
David Silva celebrates with Sergio Aguero after equalising against Chelsea
footballChelsea 1 Manchester City 1
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

    £15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

    Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

    Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

    £20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

    Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

    £18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

    Day In a Page

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links