Jobless? It Could Be Aging You

Jobless? It Could Be Aging You

Unemployed men appear to age faster than those who are employed, according to a PLOS ONE study in November 2013. It’s just the latest research suggesting that being unemployed—or underemployed—is bad for your health.

That’s why employment status is an important part of the RealAge Test. We have abundant evidence that joblessness, working part-time when you want to work full time, having a second job and (especially early) retirement make your RealAge older. Research has even linked unemployment with a higher risk of death.

The PLOS ONE study looked at the length of telomeres: protective “caps” at the end of our chromosomes, often compared to plastic tips on shoelaces. Telomeres naturally shrink as we age—and shorter telomeres are associated with age-related disease and shorter lifespans. In this study, men who were unemployed for at least 500 days during a three-year period were more likely to have short telomeres than their continuously employed counterparts.

So why does unemployment wreak havoc on your health?

Emotional stress is one likely explanation; we know it correlates with increased risk of heart disease, cancer and death. People under constant stress have high levels of stress hormones, especially epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol. Epinephrine raises heart rate and predisposes the heart to abnormal rhythms that range from harmless to potentially fatal. Cortisol increases blood pressure and counteracts the effects of insulin, causing blood sugar to rise. It may be that the cortisol has a direct effect on telomere length as well. (Discover the top 10 cities with the least stress.)

The effect of joblessness is not limited to biochemistry. It can also lead to unhealthy behaviors. If you’re very busy looking for a job—or are depressed about not having one—you may stop exercising. Fast food and comfort foods may replace healthy choices that take more time and energy to prepare. Sleep is often affected, which in turn has multiple effects on mood and energy levels.

Self-esteem is often a casualty of losing a job as well. An unjustified sense of worthlessness is itself detrimental to health, but even worse, it can keep you from spending time with friends and family. This social network has been repeatedly correlated with longer life expectancy and a younger RealAge.

Losing a job very often means losing health insurance, which makes seeing a doctor substantially more difficult. That means that small and potentially dangerous symptoms can go without evaluation or treatment. I have certainly seen symptoms of early diabetes neglected for months until the person ends up in the emergency room with a diabetic emergency.

I am not surprised by the study showing the biologic consequences of joblessness. Fortunately, there are things you can do to protect your health if, like most Americans, you find yourself unemployed for a time.

The first and maybe hardest step is to realize that if you lose a job in this economy, it’s not necessarily a reflection of your abilities, and thus not a reason to feel bad about yourself. Recognizing this may make it easier to avoid potentially self-destructive behaviors, such as alcohol use, and reduce the amount of stress associated with being in-between jobs.

Keeping up exercise and a healthy diet are certainly important. Exercise doesn't need to be expensive—a comfortable pair of shoes is all you need for walking, which I highly recommend—it provides at least 80% of the health benefits of even the most intense training. And there are many ways to eat healthy on a budget. A good diet and regular exercise also helps you sleep. Finally, staying in touch with family and friends is more important than ever when under stress. (Find out which cities have residents with the strongest social networks.)

In fact, these healthy behaviors may actually reverse the negative effect on telomeres and increase their length, according to a study in The Lancet Oncology.

Losing a job can begin a cascade of unhealthy associated factors. By knowing what they are and how they work, you can be prepared to get through a temporary jobless period without suffering adverse effects.

Take the first steps to growing younger and healthier with the RealAge Test.

Medically reviewed in December 2019.

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