According to a recent study from the University of Southern California, social stress, bullying and depression lead to an accelerated aging of the immune system. This can significantly increase susceptibility to various diseases.

This article first appeared on

Anyone who struggles with bullying in everyday life or is unemployed usually suffers twice over: according to a recent study, social stress causes our immune system to age faster. And that in turn increases the susceptibility to cardiovascular diseases and cancer, but also to Covid-19.

As we age, our immune system weakens

Our immune system protects us from viruses, bacteria and other pathogens. The fitter it is, the less often we suffer from infectious diseases such as colds, flu and the like. But the risk of cardiovascular diseases, for example, is also influenced by whether our immune system is intact. However, a weak immune system not only affects the incidence of disease, but also impairs the effectiveness of vaccines.

As we age, our immune system becomes less and less effective. For example, it produces fewer antibodies. At the same time, the immune cells no longer recognize antigens as quickly and consequently have a delayed reaction to foreign bodies. When this aging process begins differs from person to person.

Scientists at the University of Southern California have now investigated whether social stress affects the aging of the body’s immune system. The researchers led by Eric Klopack from the Faculty of Gerontology have now published their results in the journal “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” (PNAS).

Chronic stress, trauma and the like impair the immune system

As part of the study, the researchers examined the connection between social stress and typical signs of aging of the immune system. To do this, they evaluated the data from a total of 5,744 over-50s. The study participants answered questions that were aimed, for example, at experiences with bullying, discrimination or unemployment. Chronic stress, stressful life events (such as the loss of a partner) or trauma were also taken into account in the questionnaire.

Finally, the results of the survey were combined with the data sets from the University of Michigan’s extensive Health and Retirement Study. This is a national longitudinal study of the health and retirement of Americans that has been running since 1990. In the course of the study, the participants will be asked about their lifestyle and health every two years. Blood samples from the subjects are also examined.

The result: Those who are more frequently exposed to social stress have a weaker immune system. This can manifest itself in a reduced number of immune and defense cells such as T cells or in less active antibodies.

Those who have been exposed to chronic stress or life trauma have been shown to have a lower percentage of naïve CD4 cells. Lifelong disadvantage was reflected, for example, in a lower percentage of naïve CD8 cells. CD4 and CD8 are glycoproteins that sit on the surface of immune system cells such as T cells or macrophages.

Other factors influencing the immune system, such as the body mass index (BMI), alcohol and cigarette consumption and the level of education were also taken into account. These also favored the premature aging of the immune system. The social stress accelerates the so-called immune senescence indirectly.

Relax as often as you can

The aim of the study was to gain a better understanding of the various factors influencing health in old age. ‘As the world’s population continues to age, there is a need to understand disparities in the health of older people,’ said Erik Klopack, lead author of the study. In his opinion, age-related changes in the immune system “play a decisive role in the deterioration of health”. With the help of the study, mechanisms that are partly responsible for the accelerated aging of the immune system could be elucidated.

Even if many of the causes of social stress mentioned cannot simply be eliminated, the study makes it clear how important it is to prevent stress at least at the points that we can control ourselves. Take care of small relaxation units as often as possible: a walk, a bath or visit to the sauna or a short phone call with a loved one often works wonders.