Chronic and continuous stress may significantly increase the risk of dying from cancer, according to new research out of the Medical College of Georgia.
Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the United States behind heart disease, accounting for over 600,000 deaths in 2021 alone. Total cancer cases nearly reached 2 million, as well, and a common thread between those patients was lifelong and chronic stress.
In fact, patients with increased ‘allostatic load,’ or cumulative wear and tear, were 2.4 times more likely to die from cancer than patients who reported lower stress levels.
“As a response to external stressors, your body releases a stress hormone called cortisol, and then once the stress is over, these levels should go back down,” said study co-author Justin Xavier Moore, an epidemiologist at the Medical College of Georgia and Georgia Cancer Center. “However, if you have chronic, ongoing psychosocial stressors, that never allow you to ‘come down,’ then that can cause wear and tear on your body at a biological level,” Dr Moore continued.
The study parsed through data collected from 41,000 patients spanning from 1988 to 2019. Based on user feedback, the research team attempted to calculate a presumed allostatic load based on BMI, blood pressures, cholesterol, hemoglobin, and C-reactive protein (a common measure of inflammation). Because lifelong stress typically manifests as raised levels in the aforementioned health markers, researchers extrapolated that high levels of those markers basically indicated high stress levels — working ‘backwards’ in a sense.
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The team then compared the allostatic load findings with death rates from the past 30 years to determine the rate of elevated death from “stress.” This type of research does not account for cofounders like demographics, race, age, or sex, but the research team can retroactively filter by these specifics if desired.
When controlling for age, for example, researchers found that people with a high allostatic load still had a 28 percent increased risk of dying from cancer.
“That means that if you were to have two people of the same age if one of those people had a high allostatic load, they are 28 percent more likely to die from cancer,” Dr Moore explained.
“Even if you take race out, the bottom line is that the environments in which we live, work, and play, where you are rewarded for working more and sometimes seen as weak for taking time for yourself, is conducive to high stress which in turn may lead to cancer development and increased morbidity and mortality,” he added.
When adjusting for other factors including sex and race and educational level, high allostatic load led to a 21 per cent increase. As a result of the study, researchers called for more research to specify the link between chronic stress and death from cancer.
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