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Stress Hurts

It damages the body, contributing to heart disease, diabetes and more. In these economic times, it's also a fact of life. Here's how to protect yourself.

December 01, 2008|Marnell Jameson | Jameson is a freelance writer.

Stocks are falling. Companies are handing out pink slips. Home values are collapsing. Financial icons are folding.

And Americans' stress is rising.

The 2008 Stress in America survey, conducted by the American Psychological Assn. and released in October, found that stress levels have increased significantly over the last two years, particularly in the last six months. Money and the economy top the list of concerns.

Among 2,500 participants from across the country, 81% said money was a significant cause of stress, up from 73% in 2007 and 59% in 2006. Worries about other economic issues also increased. Between April and October, worries about work jumped from 62% to 67%; concerns over housing costs rose from 56% to 62%; and job stability woes increased from 48% to 56%. Meanwhile, consumer confidence plummeted to 38.8 points in October (the lowest since the index began in 1967, though it rose slightly in November).

As the economy plummets and stress levels soar, people need to find ways to manage their stress -- or more than their investments will suffer.

Chronic unresolved stress weakens the immune system, increasing our susceptibility to infections such as common colds and other viruses. And when stress increases, so does inflammation, contributing to stroke, arthritis, Type 2 diabetes, periodontal disease and frailty. Additionally, studies have shown, the cumulative effects of unresolved psychological stress contribute to heart disease and high blood pressure.

And if those weren't enough negatives, stress also turns on genes that trigger disease, accelerate aging and lead to depression, says Michael Irwin, professor of psychiatry at UCLA and director of the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology.

Adds Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, an Ohio State University psychiatry professor specializing in stress: "I'm absolutely convinced the effects of stress are far worse than what we thought they were."

In a study of caregivers providing long-term care for spouses with dementia, for example, Kiecolt-Glaser and her colleagues found that the caregivers had delayed and substantially weaker immune responses to the influenza vaccine when compared with a control group of people who weren't caregivers, suggesting that the chronic stress of their situation had taken a toll on their ability to fight off viruses. Similar results have been seen among stressed and nonstressed college undergraduates.

In a separate study of female caregivers undergoing the long-term stress of caring for a spouse with Alzheimer's, researchers found that skin wounds on caregivers took 24% longer to heal than those of a control group.

And in a group of 394 healthy adult volunteers who were inoculated with five different strains of virus, the severity of their infection increased in direct correlation to the participants' scores on a psychological stress index. Those who were under more stress got sicker. "Overall, adults who showed higher rates of chronic stress also experienced higher rates of clinical illness," Kiecolt-Glaser said.

But even as advances in neuroscience and biomedicine have helped researchers better understand how stress hurts the body, they have also shown which interventions work to reduce the effects of stress -- and which ones don't.

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health@latimes.com

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