The idea of ‘ageing’ overnight after a traumatic event sounds like a figure of speech — it was famously expressed in relation to Marie Antoinette, the last Queen of France.
Her hair allegedly went white the night before she was executed by guillotine during the French Revolution, aged 38.
Yet research has now shown that going white overnight and other forms of rapid ageing are a biological fact.
A U.S. study found that new mothers who had less than seven hours’ sleep a night in their baby’s first six months were biologically three to seven years older than those who had seven or more hours’ rest, as reported in the journal Sleep Health last month.
Research has now shown that going white overnight and other forms of rapid ageing are a biological fact
The researchers, from the University of California, Los Angeles, looked at 33 new mothers aged 23 to 45, measuring the length of their telomeres. These are DNA structures found at the end of chromosomes that are seen as a marker for biological ageing (more on this later).
It’s not known whether these effects are long-lasting in women, but this latest finding adds to a body of research that shows ageing can speed up, sometimes dramatically.
Some of the factors behind ageing (essentially, gradual damage to the cells) are the familiar culprits — smoking, drinking excessively, being overweight and inactive — which account for about 9.2 per cent of ageing. Adverse life events, such as unemployment, loss of a child or being diagnosed with a terminal illness accounted for another 9 per cent, according to a study of 2,339 adults aged 50 and over by Yale University in the U.S., published in 2019.
The researchers determined biological age — a reflection of what is going on at a cellular level — by measuring a range of markers in the blood including white blood cells, which are part of the immune system. Normally, immune function falls with age — how well it is working is one indicator of biological age.
Genes played the most important determining role, the scientists found.
However, while Peter Joshi, a geneticist and Chancellor’s fellow at the University of Edinburgh, agrees that genes play a role, he says lifestyle and life events can be far more influential.
‘Anyone who has been to a school reunion from the age of 40 onwards will know that we all age at a different rate — whether it be facial wrinkles, body shape, the degree of hair loss or greying of hair,’ he says.
We asked leading experts about the factors that can speed up ageing, whether over a relatively short space of time or longer-term changes — and tips on how to counter the effects.
This is what they told us….
Why hair goes white with shock
A gradual greying of the hair — due to a loss of the pigment melanin that provides its colour — is a common sign of ageing.
But for some, especially those who have experienced shocks or traumatic life events, the process is anything but gradual — a condition known to dermatologists as Marie Antoinette syndrome.
It is, however, rare (and takes more time than just overnight), but thanks to a study published in the journal Nature in 2020 we have a clearer idea of its cause.
In a study of mice, a team at Harvard University in the U.S. found that stressful situations activate nerves that form part of the ‘fight or flight’ response in the section of the nervous system responsible for controlling the body’s automatic functions.
This causes permanent damage to melanocyte stem cells in hair follicles, which play a key part in the production of the melanin pigment.
The chemical noradrenaline, which is released by nerves when someone is under extreme stress, permanently harms the reservoir of melanocyte stem cells.
A gradual greying of the hair — due to a loss of the pigment melanin that provides its colour — is a common sign of ageing
But in another recent study, scientists at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons in the U.S. found that while stress does turn hair grey, reducing stress could reverse the process.
Meanwhile, in some cases, premature greying of hair in younger people is thought to be determined by genes. It may also be due to vitamin deficiencies (which can be reversed).
A 2015 study published in the journal Development by researchers at the University of Edinburgh’s MRC Human Genetics Unit found vitamin D3, B12 and copper deficiencies may contribute to grey hair and can be reversed with supplements.
Surgery could speed up decline
Surgery and anaesthetic can, in some cases, speed up the ageing process and have a ‘catastrophic effect on the brain’, says Chris Fox, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Exeter, who is carrying out research into this.
‘Most people who have surgery or anaesthesia won’t have any long-term cognitive effects from it, but there are some who seem to be affected — some older patients will go in with mild cognitive problems and come out with dementia.
‘Dementia is a sign of brain ageing, so the theory is that the surgery may contribute to speeding up the brain-ageing process,’ he adds.
Professor Fox says this potential risk of anaesthesia is greater if you’re in intensive care. It doesn’t happen to everyone, but the longer you are in intensive care the more noticeable the long-term cognitive problems.
This may be explained by the ‘vulnerable brain hypothesis’ — where certain patients are more prone to the effects of surgery or anaesthetic.
Surgery and anaesthetic can, in some cases, speed up the ageing process and have a ‘catastrophic effect on the brain’, says Chris Fox, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of Exeter
This is either because they have a medical condition such as diabetes or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or the blood-brain barrier, which normally protects the brain from circulating toxins, is leaking. ‘That means their brains get flooded with inflammation and medicines including anaesthetics,’ he says.
He points to evidence in animal studies to back the vulnerable brain theory.
His team are analysing older patients in the UK and Norway who have had surgery for a broken leg, some of whom have pre-existing dementia and some who don’t, in a bid to understand whether surgery can have a long-lasting effect on the brain.
If a pattern emerges in humans, doctors could use this to devise pre-surgery treatments — such as drugs or a diet high in antioxidants — to minimise the effects.
A paper published last month in the Journal of the American Medical Association by doctors at the University of California in the U.S. suggested surgeons should discuss the risks before surgery, and recommended a range of treatments beforehand to minimise them. These included nutrition plans and treating depression and alcohol abuse.
There’s ‘no question’ that the physical effects of surgery, including anaesthesia, are a strain on the body, eliciting a stress response in it — and the physiology of an older person is less forgiving, says Dr Jeremy Prout, a consultant anaesthetist at the Royal Free Hospital and the private Princess Grace Hospital, both in London.
‘But we can minimise the chances of this by preventing dehydration and minimising the use of heavily sedating drugs where possible,’ he says.
Weight loss accelerates skin ageing
Stressful life events such as bereavement, divorce or job loss can speed up skin ageing, says Dr Justine Hextall, a consultant dermatologist at the Tarrant Street Clinic in Arundel, West Sussex.
A 2010 study, which followed 118 women aged 40 to 45 over nine years, challenged the assumption that skin ageing is gradual by revealing that it can take place in rapid spurts.
Researcher Rajiv Grover, a consultant plastic surgeon at the London Clinic, found up to 35 per cent of skin ageing that would usually take a decade could, in some circumstances, occur in a year alone.
Lifestyle events were more significant in determining the timing of an ageing spurt, rather than age itself.
Substantial weight loss was a major contributor to big ageing spurts.
Interestingly, the most significant area for such a spurt was the cheeks.
Mr Grover said: ‘Put simply, the way to age gracefully is to give up yo-yo dieting and not to lose weight in a rapid fashion.’
Is your career making you old?
Working long hours and stress can be a cause of premature ageing, according to recent research looking at telomeres.
Telomeres are DNA material found at the end of chromosomes (which contain genetic information), protecting them from damage — a bit like the ends of shoelaces.
Genetic material can be damaged by repeated replication eventually leading to errors, and also by environmental factors such as alcohol and smoking.
Telomeres do shorten with age every year from birth — and shortened telo-meres lead to age-related deterioration, where cells stop dividing but don’t die; apoptosis (cell death); and the development of cancerous cells.
A study of 250 junior doctors at the University of Michigan in the U.S., published in the journal Biological Psychiatry in 2019, found that during their first year in hospitals, their telomeres aged six times faster compared with a group of undergraduates. Those working the longest hours had the most telomere shrinkage.
The doctors worked an average of 64 hours a week, but those routinely working 80 hours a week had the shortest telomeres.
By contrast, the undergraduates did not experience any telomere shrinkage.
The findings were based on DNA samples given before and after the 12-month period; the study was the first to measure telomere length before and after a prolonged period of intense stress.
‘These findings advance the possibility that telomere length can serve as a biomarker that tracks the effects of stress and helps us understand how stress gets “under the skin” and increases our risk for disease,’ explains Srijan Sen, a neuroscientist and psychiatrist, and one of the study’s authors.
The study team are now doing further research by taking more DNA samples from participants to assess how mood, sleep and activity could influence telomere length.
Lack of vitamin B ages brain in weeks
A vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to cognitive problems associated with ageing within a few months and, in older people, a misdiagnosis of dementia. The nutrient — found in dairy products, eggs and meat — is needed for a healthy immune system and function of the nervous system, including memory, as it is important for the production of neurons, or nerve cells.
Older people are more prone to B12 deficiency as their diet is generally poorer — ‘especially if they live alone and tend not to eat a nutritious balanced diet or skip meals’, says Jeff Foster, a GP at the H3 Health Men’s Health Clinic in Warwickshire.
Indeed, 5 per cent of 65 to 75-year-olds, and 10 per cent of over-75s, are thought to lack it.
Dr Foster says confusion and memory problems induced by B12 deficiency can mimic the cognition problems associated with old age.
‘The good news is that these effects on memory are reversible by taking supplements or B12 injections,’ he says.
Dr Foster suggests all over-65s make an effort to ensure their diet includes B12-rich foods.
Another common cause of B12 deficiency is pernicious anaemia, an autoimmune condition not related to diet that causes antibodies to attack the lining of the gut so the body can’t absorb B12.
The condition is more prevalent in women aged about 60 and those with other autoimmune diseases — this can be treated with injections of hydroxocobalamin.
The toll of a broken heart
‘I’ll often see patients who will die six months to a year after their partner and I believe it’s down to the effects of inflammation on the body,’ says Professor Fox.
Stress caused by bereavements can cause elevated levels of inflammation in the body in the immediate weeks and months after a loss, he explains. ‘This ages the body by increasing the risk of illnesses such as depression and heart disease.
‘Bereaved people can be very depressed — it’s important they get treatment, as this will not only help their depression, but their physical health, too.’
Another problem related to bereavement is broken-heart syndrome, also known as acute stress cardiomyopathy or takotsubo syndrome, which causes chest pain and breathlessness. But unlike a heart attack, the arteries are not blocked. It mainly affects women of post-menopausal age.
It’s often triggered by acute emotional or physical distress experienced 24 to 48 hours before, says Sundip Patel, a consultant cardiologist at St Thomas’ Hospital in London, and London Bridge Hospital.
‘Patients I have treated with this include an older woman whose son had been arrested and imprisoned the day before, and another, younger woman who had just had a traumatic birth,’ says Dr Patel.
It is diagnosed by a scan, revealing a distinctive damaged area on the left ventricle resembling a Japanese takotsubo fisherman’s octopus pot.
‘Deaths are rare, but survivors can take many months to recover and require medication and the care of a heart specialist to do so.’
It is thought that acute emotional or physical distress floods the body with the stress hormone adrenaline, putting a strain on the heart and causing inflammation.
‘Mostly, this is reversible, but sometimes it is irreversible. While this is not accelerated ageing as such, it is a very abrupt change to the way the heart functions,’ says Dr Patel.