Sociological Influences on Stress and Aging

by Juliana Hitch, Biology and Dance

Abstract: It is commonly known that negative life experiences generally result in worse health outcomes, or higher risk of premature death. But are these negative consequences a result of poor life choices? Or could the undeniable correlation have ties to some underlying biological factor? This paper analyzes the connections that exist between negative life experiences, quantified by socioeconomic status, and the length and quality of people’s lives, found to be mediated by one common factor: stress. Epigenetic markers offer a valuable tool to track the impact of stress on health over the entire lifespan, beginning during prenatal development. Correlations to socioeconomic status demonstrate how limited resources and heightened environmental challenges accelerate aging, but the impact of stress is shown to have further nuance. Even affluent individuals face stressors related to social pressures, impacting their longevity. This paper discusses the Whitehall Studies and other research demonstrating the nuanced relationship between socioeconomic status, perceived status, stress, and aging. It emphasizes the need to address social inequalities to mitigate stress and promote longevity. While interventions targeting epigenetic markers offer potential ways to extend the lifespan in limited individual cases, achieving global longevity ultimately requires addressing broader social challenges of inequality to reduce stress through alleviating social pressures, promoting environments that protect individual wellbeing and limit the stress response.

stress, aging, epigenetics, biological weathering, socioeconomic status

Stress and aging are complex phenomena that are influenced by biological, psychological, and sociological factors. While many overlook the role that societal influence has on stress and aging, social factors may be the most important factor in determining the length of a person’s lifespan and wellbeing. Therefore, stress serves as a mediator in the relationship between social factors and aging, which can be tracked throughout the lifespan and used as an indicator of life expectancy. From childhood development to mortality, and across the socioeconomic status spectrum, stress has a significant influence on our health.

While we typically measure age in years, everyone ages biologically at different rates; we call this phenomenon our biological clock, which is influenced by our experiences throughout the lifespan. One of the key systems related to biological aging is the level of cortisol in the body, which increases with stress. Therefore, stress is a mediator between sociological experiences and biological aging. High levels of cortisol, which is released with the body’s stress response, weaken the immune system and make the body more prone to early aging. Therefore, people who consistently experience stress from their social environment are at a higher risk of mortality earlier on in life. We can quantify this concept of biological aging with epigenetics, which involves tracking signs of aging through genetic markers in our DNA. Sociologists can utilize epigenetic information to analyze a person’s biological clock, which can predict their longevity and risk of developing diseases caused by aging. A study on Resetting Epigenetic Clocks (Simons et al., 2022) discusses how measures of accelerated biological aging have been linked to cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, and general mortality. However, what makes this interesting sociologically is that these links to accelerated biological aging are also connected with social factors like cumulative stress and economic hardship; as social hardships increase, so does the risk of developing age-related diseases, predisposed by the epigenetic clock. In their test group of 100 middle aged African American women, 68% of lower-income women showed epigenetic signs of early onset aging, while only 29% of the higher income group had these DNA markers (Simons et al., 2022). This evidence links stress to these social hardships as a mediator for biological aging, demonstrating the biological consequences of stress.

As epigenetic markers are becoming an increasingly common method to track biological aging, it is easier to reveal the impacts that earlier social experiences have on aging later in life because it can be determined through epigenetic testing if an individual is predisposed to early mortality. Therefore, we can study how development in childhood and adolescence impacts later rates of mortality. Stress in mothers while pregnant can leave epigenetic markers of aging on a fetus’s DNA, predisposing the child to early mortality before they are even born. Social scientists have found that stress’s impact on the body is most potent when it occurs during brain development, from the fetal stage all the way to adolescence (Buss et al., 2012). This exacerbates the effects that a stressful upbringing has on future health and life expectancy. One example of developmental impact on advanced aging is the concept of weathering, which has been studied among low-income areas across the US. Factors like poor neighborhood support, racial inequalities, and low control over financial situations all contribute to chronic stress, which wears down your body quicker than it should age – hence the term “weathering” (Davies et al., 2023). These social factors begin to impact a person early on in life, and the effects can now be traced with epigenetics. Simons et al.’s (2022) study on epigenetics discusses that factors like housing difficulties, need of financial support, and cumulative neighborhood disadvantage all contribute to changes in lifespan by increasing chronic stress. These circumstances continuously trigger the body’s stress response, advancing wear and tear on the body. These effects begin by impacting children living in poor SES families, then continue throughout the lifespan as these children grow into adults dealing with financial difficulties of their own.

It’s not a surprise that those with lower socioeconomic status (SES) tend to have more stressful lifestyles, and therefore a greater prevalence of accelerated biological aging. Additionally, many health-related behaviors, like exercise and diet, are negatively impacted by lower income levels. People in lower social classes have less access to medical education, which causes less healthy lifestyle choices overall. Lower income levels also make healthier foods, like organic produce, less accessible. All of these factors contribute to a person’s overall wellbeing, which can impact the risk of early mortality. However, in the “Whitehall Studies” conducted by Sir Michael Marmot (2005), it shows that the relationship between SES and aging is more meticulous than one would assume. The study analyzes differences in mortality rates among different levels of occupation in the British social service. These men are all relatively well off; they have low risk occupations, and their neighborhoods and social resources are largely similar; however, their perceived level of success within their occupation influences stress, and consequently aging. In Marmot’s findings, higher rank of employment corresponded with lower mortality rates across the board, among every cause of death studied. This suggests that, not only are one’s social resources impactful on lifespan, but so is overall perception of status and success. This leads back to the idea that stress is a mediator between environmental or social factors and biological aging; without the impact of stress due to perceived status, social environment would not impact aging as profusely.

It is important to note that social status, or perceived status, is not the only social factor that contributes to stress. For example, families with very high SES and greater access to resources are more likely to place stressors on children with high expectations for success in school, sports, and extracurricular activities. Affluent children and teens with busy schedules and high pressure surely experience a significant level of stress; in a 1999 study on the psychological cost of material wealth, patterns appeared between affluence and prevalence of anxiety, depression, and substance abuse (Luthar et al., 1999). In comparison to low SES 10th graders from an urban area, their suburban counterparts with more material wealth and status reported higher levels of anxiety and depression across the board. For example, rates of symptoms of depression among the sample of affluent suburban seventh-grade girls were around 14%, as opposed to 7% in the fixed, normative sample. After analyzing their initial findings, Luthar and colleagues collected more qualitative data from participants and found that these patterns exist because children and teens from more affluent families experience greater pressure to excel at many academic and extracurricular pursuits, along with a greater internal sense of perfectionistic striving. This shows that stress arises from social factors on either side of the SES spectrum, and any type of stress has the potential to impact longevity.

There are many social factors that seem to contribute to aging regardless of their impact on stress. For example, in addition to biological impacts that poor social conditions create, socioeconomic status contributes to aging and mortality in many other contexts. Associations between social class and life expectancy are prevalent among societies around the world; lower socioeconomic status deprives people of resources needed for health, like medical care, medical education, clean places to live, and healthy diets. But regardless of these additional factors, the links between stress and aging are irrefutable; stress mediates the relationship between social factors and accelerated aging and explains how the impacts of stress on aging are prevalent in more affluent communities as well. It is the biological response to stress, not the socioeconomic status, that actually impacts biological longevity. Recent research suggests there may be ways to slow epigenetic clocks through therapies like hormone restriction or calorie restriction (Simons et al., 2022); however, the best way to increase lifespan potential is to reduce stress, which also requires alleviating social pressures. Therefore, the best answer to achieving longevity lies among larger obstacles of social inequality.

Works Cited

Buss, Claudia et al. “The Role of Stress in Brain Development: The Gestational Environment’s Long-Term Effects on the Brain.” Cerebrum: The Dana Forum on Brain Science, vol. 2012, 2012, pp. 4.

Davies, Dave. “How Poverty and Racism ‘Weather’ the Body, Accelerating Aging and Disease.” NPR, 28 Mar. 2023,

Luthar, Suniya S. “The Culture of Affluence: Psychological Costs of Material Wealth.” Child Development, vol. 74, no. 6, 2003, pp. 1581-93. doi:10.1046/j.1467-8624.2003.00625.x

Marmot, Michael. The Status Syndrome: How Social Standing Affects Our Health and Longevity. Henry Holt and Company, 2005.

Simons, Ronald L., et al. “Shifts in Lifestyle and Socioeconomic Circumstances Predict Change—for Better or Worse—in Speed of Epigenetic Aging: A Study of Middle-Aged Black Women.” Social Science & Medicine, vol. 307, Aug. 2022.

Citation Style: MLA