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New research highlights more effective way to measure stress that could delay physical ageing

A new study by Queen’s University Belfast highlights how new ways to objectively assess stress help to predict the physical “wear and tear” often associated with the natural ageing process.

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The team of researchers found that a set of biomarkers – measures taken in routine blood tests - could be used to predict future health and health related quality of life up to five years later.  

Approximately one quarter of UK adults are currently diagnosed with two or more chronic conditions, often referred to as multimorbidity. Multimorbidity is concentrated in lower socioeconomic groups. It is projected to increase over the next 15 years and becomes more common with age. Around two thirds of over 65s have two or more chronic conditions.    

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 healthier populations even though the lifetime benefit of intervention is greatest for such groups.  

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

Analysing over 7,000 blood samples, the team created an allostatic load (AL) ‘score’, which is a measure of risk for ill health. They compared the AL score with self-reported physical health taking into account a number of factors such as age, income, education, exercise and diet. Dr Barry explained: “We found that when looking at AL for two seemingly similar individuals (same gender, age, lifestyles, personality and social circumstances), who rated their physical health the same, in fact, the AL index predicted whose physical health is likely to decline the quickest.” 

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

Policymakers and clinicians have acknowledged the need for more preventative approaches to deal with the rise of multimorbidity and “early ageing.”  

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. 

Dr Barry added: “We need to be able to identify those at risk, through a type of screening process so that earlier intervention measures can be implemented. This would ultimately 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. This would prevent the snowball effect that chronic stress can have on our health as individuals, as well as our healthcare systems.” 


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