Chronic Stress Spikes Your Risk of Dying From Cancer: Experts Say This Is How to Combat It

If chronic stress has you at your wit's end, you may be among the one-third of U.S. adults who report feeling extreme stress consistently. Sure, we all experience some form of stress in our daily lives, but chronic stress—the kind that involves a consistent sense of feeling pressured and overwhelmed over a long period—can wreak havoc on your body and mind.

According to The American Institute of Stress, every day an estimated one million people in the U.S. miss work due to stress, and around 75 percent of Americans say chronic stress negatively impacts their physical and mental health.

In a study published in SSM Population Health in September 2022, cancer researchers from the Medical College of Georgia found that chronic stress can make your risk of fatal cancer soar. Read on to learn how to alleviate stress and protect your long-term health.

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Stress is a burden on your overall health.

Not only does stress damage your mental well-being, but it can manifest in physical symptoms if it's not properly managed. This phenomenon is called allostatic load—the "wear and tear" of lifelong stress on your physical and mental health.

"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 Justin Xavier Moore, PhD, MPH, lead researcher and an epidemiologist at the Medical College of Georgia and Georgia Cancer Center, in a statement. "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."

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Researchers analyzed the impact chronic stress has on the body.

In the study, Moore and his research team looked at data from over 41,000 people from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) collected between 1988 and 2019. This database includes various biomarkers that indicate health status, including body mass index (BMI), blood pressure, cholesterol, hemoglobin A1C (a measure of diabetes risk), albumin and creatinine (measures of kidney function), and C-reactive protein (an inflammation marker). With this information, the researchers determined the participants' allostatic load, or "wear and tear" caused by chronic stress.

Those assigned a score of 3 or higher were categorized as a high allostatic load. Then, the researchers compared this data to participants from the National Death Index to determine how many people died from cancer and when. Their findings indicated that participants with a high load were 2.4 times more likely to die from cancer than those with a low one—even after adjusting for age, gender, race, and social demographic.

Biological disparities were accounted for.

Regardless of age, sex, and race, the researchers found that a higher allostatic load still increased fatal cancer risk. For example, after controlling for age, those with a higher allostatic load had a 28 percent higher cancer death risk. Also, a 21 percent increase in the risk of dying from cancer was observed after adjusting for sex, race, and education level. Ultimately, they found no significant correlation between race and cancer death.

"The reason race even matters is because there are systemic factors that disproportionately affect people of color," said Moore. "But 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."

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Manage your stress to reduce your risk of dying from cancer.

The study's findings are timely, considering cancer is the second-leading cause of death in America, accounting for over 600,000 deaths last year. Nearly everyone has been affected (directly or indirectly) by this devastating disease. That's why it's crucial to find healthy ways to manage stress and prevent the wear and tear of chronic stress from wreaking havoc on your health—and potentially your life.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), some excellent ways to effectively manage stress (and slash your fatal cancer risk) include eating a nutritious diet, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, doing deep breathing techniques, and practicing mindfulness meditation.