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The average life expectancy of people living in the United States is roughly 79 years. Several factors influence how long a person lives, however, such as diet, physical activity, and smoking. A new study suggests that mental stress shortens life expectancy by nearly three years.

Mental stress can affect the immune, digestive, cardiovascular, sleep, and reproductive systems, eliciting a wide range of symptoms, including headaches, sleeplessness, sadness, anger, or irritability. Prolonged stress can promote continued strain on the body, contributing to serious health problems, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other illnesses, including mental disorders such as depression or anxiety.

The study was based on data drawn from cross-sectional health surveys conducted every five years in Finland, spanning a 20-year period between 1987 and 2007 and including approximately 35,000 adults. The study participants were generally healthy and were between the ages of 25 and 74 years. The authors of the study conducted a statistical analysis of death rates using a model that included risk factors commonly associated with longevity, such as socioeconomic background, medical history, lifestyle, lifestyle satisfaction, and biological risk factors.

They found that some factors decreased the risk of premature death such as eating fruits and berries daily or almost daily (15 percent lower), having a higher level of education (10 percent lower), or frequent engagement in leisure-time physical activity (25 percent lower). Factors that increased risk included smoking (67 percent higher) or having diabetes (100 percent higher), both of which correlated to nearly seven years' shorter lifespan. Having high levels of stress decreased lifespan among men by nearly three years.

To learn more about the harmful effects of stress, watch this clip featuring Dr. Elissa Epel in which she describes how stress can modulate telomere length, a marker of aging.

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