The Link Between Major Stressful Life Events and Advanced Brain Aging In Men


Struggles and hardships are an inevitable part of life that challenges our resilience during difficult times. It has been said that these moments bring life lessons that make a person stronger and wiser. However, stressful or negative fateful life events don’t only bring valuable life lessons but also have adverse impacts on health and well-being.

Negative fateful life events, including conflict, the death of a loved one, financial struggles, and serious medical emergencies, are linked with early physical aging. A new study by the University of California San Diego School of Medicine researchers found that such negative fateful life events also accelerate brain aging.

The researchers examined 359 men aged 57 to 66 years old, participating in the Vietnam Era Twin Study of Aging (VETSA) to examine the link between stressful life events and premature aging of the brain. They found interesting insights that we will discuss in this article.

Negative Fateful Life Events and Advanced Brain Aging in Middle-Aged Men

Many studies have argued that persistent exposure to prolonged stressful situations can result in biological weathering and premature aging. Also, stress has disrupted biological systems, including oxidative stress, mitochondrial damage, the immune system, and other metabolic processes.

Several studies have looked into potential economic struggles, poor education, and community disadvantage linked to various chronic, age-related diseases, including type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, and dementia. Cumulative lifetime stress, except childhood or recent stress, accelerates epigenetic aging, and in a study of middle-aged African-American women of low socioeconomic status, participants demonstrated advanced biological aging.

Interestingly, this effect was significantly accelerated by economic pressure daily over other factors like diet, exercise, smoking, drinking, and health insurance. This finding suggests that specific psychological distress can significantly speed up biological aging. The relationship between midlife exposure to these unfavorable fateful life events (FLEs) and brain aging and if this effect is connected to socioeconomic level and ethnicity are still unknown.

Regarding mental health, depression has been linked to decreased hippocampus volume and cortical thickness in the orbitofrontal cortex, cingulate, insula, and temporal lobes. FLEs and stress are also strongly connected with depression. According to a study, 78 percent of dementia patients experienced a traumatic life event before their symptoms started.

The study contends that more research is needed to determine how unfortunate life events in late middle age affect people with and without modest cognitive impairment or with a high genetic risk of developing dementia. Therefore, including physical and mental health issues that are expected to harm neuroanatomy is necessary when studying the relationship between FLEs and advanced brain aging.

To determine whether tragic life events involving relationships, finances, or health are connected with advanced brain aging, the study’s researchers looked into the extent to which negative FLEs are associated with advanced expected brain aging in a cohort of late-middle-aged men.

The Findings of The Study

The researchers examined 359 men aged 57 to 66, participating in the Vietnam Era Twin Study of Aging (VETSA). The list of life-altering occurrences that participants had to keep track of over the previous two years was compared to data gathered five years earlier when they first joined VETSA. The summaries covered challenging midlife experiences from the previous seven years’ first and last two years. Within one month of finishing the most recent self-reports, all individuals got MRI scans and further physical and mental examinations.

The cerebral cortex, or the brain’s outer layer, is linked to awareness, memory, attention, thought, and other important components of cognition. The MRIs measured physiological features of the brain, such as volume and cortical thickness. Advanced software was then used to examine these neuroanatomical measures and forecast brain aging.

According to the study’s findings, even after accounting for factors like cardiovascular risk, alcohol consumption, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, which are all linked to an increased risk of aging, major adverse life events, like divorce, separation, miscarriage, or the death of a loved one or friend, can significantly accelerate the aging process in the brains of older men.

In particular, they discovered that one FLE was often linked to a 0.37-year rise in predicted brain age difference (PBAD). In other words, based on magnetic resonance imaging, a single bad experience made the brain appear physically older by around one-third of a year than the person’s chronological age (MRI).

According to the study’s authors, their findings suggest a connection between molecular aging and changes in brain structure brought on by significant stressful life experiences. The researchers emphasize that to support their findings further, bigger, more comprehensive investigations with a wider range of people were required. However, they contend that employing techniques to estimate brain age may be clinically helpful in clinical trials, enhancing study design and participant recruitment and helping patients understand how their brain health relates to their age.

Journal Reference

Hatton, S. N., Franz, C. E., Elman, J. A., Panizzon, M. S., Hagler, D. J., Fennema-Notestine, C., Eyler, L. T., McEvoy, L. K., Lyons, M. J., Dale, A. M., & Kremen, W. S. (2018). Negative fateful life events in midlife and advanced predicted brain aging. Neurobiology of Aging, 67, 1-9.

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