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.

Arts & Entertainment
tvGrace Dent on TV
Voices
Actor Zac Efron
voicesTopless men? It's as bad as Page 3, says Howard Jacobson
News
Brand said he
people
Voices
For the Love of God (2007) The diamond-encrusted skull that divided the art world failed to sell for
its $100m asking price. It was eventually bought by a consortium
which included the artist himself.
voicesYou can shove it, Mr Webb – I'll be having fun until the day I die, says Janet Street-Porter
VIDEO
Sport
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain drives in the rain during the qualifying session of the Chinese Formula One Grand Prix in Shanghai
sport
Extras
indybestFake it with 10 best self-tanners
Arts & Entertainment
Madonna in her music video for 'Like A Virgin'
music... and other misheard song lyrics
News
Much of the colleges’ land is off-limits to locals in Cambridge, with tight security
educationAnd has the Cambridge I knew turned its back on me?
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sportThe city’s fight for justice after Hillsborough is embodied in Steven Gerrard, who's poised to lead his club to a remarkable triumph
News
peopleOrlando Bloom the pin-up hero is making a fresh start
News
Who makes you happy?
happy listSend your nominations now for the Independent on Sunday Happy List
Life & Style
The North Korean TV advert for Taedonggang beer, that became a YouTube hit
food + drinkAnd what did it take to set up a taste test back in Wiltshire?
Arts & Entertainment
filmLife for Leslie Mann's can be challenging sometimes
Voices
For music lovers: John Cusack with his vinyl collection in 'High Fidelity'
voices...but don't forget rest of the year
News
The energy drink MosKa was banned for containing a heavy dose of the popular erectile dysfunction Levitra
news
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Apprentice IT Technician

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

    1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

    £153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

    1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

    Sales Associate Apprentice

    £150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

    Day In a Page

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit