Should We Stop Worrying About Stress?
For years we've been told that stress is bad for us, that it leads to heart attacks, stroke, depression, and that the unhappier we are the shorter our lives will be. However, new research suggests this simply isn't the case.
The new research
The 'Million Women Study', published in the Lancet, followed a million women for a decade asking them to rate their health, happiness and stress levels. And the results?
Whether women were happy 'never, usually or mostly' made no difference to their odds of dying during the study. Dr Bette Liu, researcher at the University of New South Wales in Australia, said: 'We found no direct effect of unhappiness or stress on mortality, even in a 10-year study of a million women.'
But wait! Stress does affect fertility
But before we start ignoring our stress levels, a study from the journal of Human Reproduction showed stress does affect fertility.
A study monitored 373 couples who were trying to conceive for 12 months. There were no known fertility problems. Saliva samples taken at the study start and after the first period measured two stress hormones - cortisol and alpha-amylase. Researchers found that women with the highest levels of alpha-amylase had a 29% lower chance of getting pregnant. There was no link between cortisol levels and fertility.
This could be because cortisol is the hormone related to chronic stress, whereas alpha-amylase is related to the sympathetic nervous system - the fight or flight response. Experts don't know why there is a difference yet.
What does this mean?
Being stressed can lead to lifestyle choices that can contribute to a shortened lifespan, such as smoking and drinking alcohol, but unhappiness itself doesn't kill. It may however have an effect on fertility.
Further research is needed, and some experts still believe that unhappiness at critical periods can have consequences on health - for example childhood unhappiness. So if stress isn't going to kill us perhaps it's worth concentrating more on the stuff that can make us ill.
- Smoking - Light smokers had double the risk of early death, and regular smokers had three times the risk during the Million Woman Study.
- Drinking - Regularly exceeding safe limits of alcohol can lead to cancer and obesity as calories pile up.
- Lack of sleep - Studies show that lack of sleep leads to a higher risk of heart attacks and early death.
- Sexually transmitted infections - STIs are widespread, and with antibiotic resistance gathering pace, they need to be addressed through safe sex awareness campaigns.
- Obesity - It's a worldwide problem described by the World Health Organisation as an epidemic. Obesity can lead to diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
But stress? Perhaps we shouldn't worry so much about it. After all, stressing about stress is counterproductive, and taking care of our health in other ways may be enough to manage it.