Trending With Impact: Can Job Stress Cause Epigenetic Aging?

The association between job-related stress and epigenetic aging was investigated using five epigenetic clocks and a Finnish cohort.

Job stress

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In aging research, recent evidence has encouraged more focus on investigating socioeconomic status (SES) and its role in human health trajectories. Previous studies have used DNA methylation measures and epigenetic clocks to demonstrate a consistent association between low SES and epigenetic age acceleration (EAA). Moreover, researchers have identified a need to further investigate the relationship between SES characteristics and aging.  

“Little is known whether current occupational characteristics or job-related stress – crucial SES characteristics – are associated with EAA.”

Recently, researchers—from Imperial College LondonUniversity of SassariUniversity of Eastern FinlandKarolinska InstitutetUniversity of Oulu, and the Italian Institute for Genomic Medicine—conducted a research study in an effort to help elucidate potential mechanisms by which work characteristics and job stressors may be impacting health and accelerating aging. Their trending research paper was published by Aging (Aging-US) on February 2, 2022, and entitled, “Work-related stress and well-being in association with epigenetic age acceleration: A Northern Finland Birth Cohort 1966 Study.” 

The Study

The researchers in this study included 604 participants from the Northern Finland Birth Cohort 1966. Participants in this cohort were all born in the provinces of Oulu and Lapland, Finland, in 1966. DNA samples were collected and used to determine the relationship between biomarkers of aging, job stress and common environmental factors associated with age acceleration, including obesity, smoking, alcoholism, education status, and physical activity. The team used five different epigenetic clocks as biomarkers of aging: HorvathAA, HannumAA, PhenoAgeAA, GrimAgeAA, and DunedinPoAm.

“In this work, we assessed the association (and its magnitude) of five biomarkers of epigenetic age acceleration with work-related stress and well-being indicators (as well as other employment characteristics) in the Northern Finland Birth Cohort 1966, at 46 years old.”

Participants also filled out a clinical examination questionnaire, a modified Karasek’s Job Content Questionnaire (to assess job strain) and the Occupational Stress Questionnaire (to measure effort-reward imbalance). A number of descriptive statistics were collected from each participant, including body mass index (BMI); educational level; alcohol consumption; smoking habits; physical/leisure activity; job status (employed/unemployed); employer type (private or state/municipality); occupational group (white-collar or blue-collar); and job exposure. The researchers defined “job exposure” as job strain, effort-reward imbalance, overcommitment, occupational physical activity, work-favoring attitude, job security and work engagement, history, hours, and shift. 

The Results

After using linear regression models to analyze the adjusted and unadjusted pooled data (males and females together), the researchers found that job strain was not significantly associated with EAA using any of the epigenetic clocks. All five clocks associated smoking and obesity with accelerated aging (at varying significance). However, alcohol use (even heavy use) was not significantly associated with accelerated aging on any of the clocks. PhenoAgeAA associated job strain, active work and white-collar work (compared to blue-collar) with decreased aging. According to the Hannum and HorvathAA biomarkers of aging, people who worked more than 40 hours per week showed increased EAA.

“Once we stratified analyses by sex, a different pattern of association emerged, with women leading on the statistically significant results.”

Next, the researchers further stratified the results by sex. In men, high-intensity physical effort at work had a decreased aging effect. However, for women, high-intensity physical effort at work had an increased aging effect. The researchers point out that these clocks may have contradictory result due to the fact that women and men often present with diverse, sex-specific epigenetic patterns. While a direct correlation between job stress and epigenetic aging have yet to be proven, the degree of association between work characteristics and biomarkers of epigenetic aging in this study did vary by sex.

Conclusion

“This paper is one of the first attempts to address the working dimension of epigenetic age acceleration indicators, to the best of our knowledge.”

The Northern Finland Birth Cohort 1966 is a useful sample for studying a general population, and many confounders were removed in doing so. However, the researchers were forthcoming about some limitations that remained in this study. The unique characteristics of the cohort, as well as the questionnaires, may be responsible for the results seen in the study. The researchers suggest that additional studies be carried out in other societies and on different types of jobs to account for gender differences. 

“Our results suggest that women and men present different associations with different epigenetic distributions regarding work-related stress indicators.”

Click here to read the full research paper published by Aging (Aging-US).

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Aging (Aging-US) is an open-access journal that publishes research papers bi-monthly in all fields of aging research. These papers are available to read at no cost to readers on Aging-us.com. Open-access journals offer information that has the potential to benefit our societies from the inside out and may be shared with friends, neighbors, colleagues, and other researchers, far and wide.

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