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Aging and work: yes, they are related

Think your job is stressful? What about hers?
Think your job is stressful? What about hers?
Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

There have been several articles in the media recently that suggest that even if you are near retirement age you might want to keep on working. While the suggestion might be appropriate if you work for yourself or are in a situation where you can make your own hours or slow down when you want, many retirees don’t have the luxury of working as long as they want.

And then there are people who do not like their job and don’t want to stay a single hour more than they have to. Research reveals that not liking your job puts a lot of stress on your emotional well being…and that it can actually make you older! Many of us have experienced the dread of having to face another week of commuting, deadlines, and a boss they're not looking forwarding to seeing. But now there is mounting evidence that job frustration itself could play a role in aging.

It is no surprise that people with stressful careers and lifestyles tend to develop health problems--especially when their jobs carry extreme consequences for mistakes. Air traffic controllers, for example, analyze complex information to make important decisions that could affect people’s lives. “Jobs like that can cause a release of stress hormones in the body, which can increase the pulse rate and increase blood pressure,” says James McCubbin, a psychology professor at Clemson University. “Over prolonged periods, stress can produce considerable wear and tear on the body and contribute to diseases that are most common in aging populations.” Stress also works indirectly by promoting smoking and obesity. People with stressful jobs do not take the time to exercise or get enough sleep.

Evidence is mounting that chronic stress can speed up the cellular aging process. Elissa Epel, an associate professor of psychiatry at University of California at San Francisco, found that women with the high-stakes job of caring for a child with a chronic illness generally have shorter white blood cell telomeres (caps on the ends of chromosomes) than women of the same age with healthy children. “Caregiving is particularly stressful, but many other jobs are stressful as well,” says Epel. “It depends on how one copes with it.”

Luckily, there's increasing evidence that the aging affects of stress can be counteracted--in some cases. Recent research by Dean Ornish, a clinical professor of medicine at the UCSF, asked men with low-risk prostate cancer to undergo a three-month lifestyle modification program that included a strict low-fat diet, daily exercise and relaxation techniques, and support-group attendance. At the conclusion of the study, the men had more of an enzyme that prevents telomere shortening than they did three months prior and reported a substantial decrease in psychological distress.

Employees who take control over any aspect of their job often reduce stress. Indeed, it is the amount of control over any part one one’s life that makes the difference between satisfaction and unhappiness. If you are stressed at work, try to figure out the source of your stress and see if you can approach it differently or somehow make it less stressful. Not only will it make your job more satisfying, it will slow down the aging process!