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This One Thing Ages You 20 Years, Say Doctors

Otherwise known as the “reverse Benjamin Button."
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Aging is inevitable and should be seen as a privilege—premature aging, not so much. "How can one person bask in the sunshine of good health, while another person looks old before her time? Humans have been asking this question for millennia, and recently, it's becoming clearer and clearer to scientists that the differences between people's rates of aging lie in the complex interactions among genes, social relationships, environments and lifestyles," say Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, and Elissa Epel, PhD. Here's what could age you 20 years, according to experts. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Loud Noise

woman sticking fingers in ears with eyes closed, not listening to loud noise

"Long-lasting exposure to loud noises isn't usually one that's on my patients' radar until they start to experience its adverse effects on their hearing," says Mona Brownfield, MD. "When I say loud noises, I'm not just talking about rock concerts and industrial machinery, which are usually the first things people think of; I'm talking about boats, lawn mowers, movie theaters and even vacuuming. Exposure to loud noise can damage the little hair cells in our ears that carry sound to our brain. Once those hairs are broken, they can't regrow, and the less hairs we have, the worse our hearing. Be sure to wear earplugs or other protective gear when dealing with any long-lasting volumes that are louder than a normal conversation."




Chronic stress can accelerate cellular aging—and does a number on your skin. "Telomeres are a protective casing at the end of a strand of DNA," says Dr. Epel. "When the telomere is too diminished, the cell often dies or becomes pro-inflammatory. This sets the aging process in motion, along with associated health risks. The two biggest factors are chronological aging and genetics, but stress is now on the map as one of the most consistent predictors of shorter telomere length. The type of stress determines how big its effect is… Our brains are constantly looking for threats to our survival. When we expose our bodies to years of chronic stress arousal, we see effects that override normal aging, making our telomeres look like they are from a significantly older person."


UV Rays

Woman apply sun cream on tanned back

Too much sun can accelerate wrinkles and fine lines, doctors warn. "Premature aging of the skin is caused by light exposure," says Melanie Palm, MD. "This can also include visible (HEV) and infrared light, which are other parts of the light spectrum. There's really no reason for photoaging. We can keep skin looking good for decades if we just take care of it."


Negative Thoughts

Thoughtful girl sitting on sill embracing knees looking at window, sad depressed teenager spending time alone at home, young upset pensive woman feeling lonely or frustrated thinking about problems

"Scientists have learned that several thought patterns appear to be unhealthy for telomeres, and one of them is cynical hostility," says Dr. Epel. "Cynical hostility is defined by high anger and frequent thoughts that other people cannot be trusted. Someone with hostility doesn't just think, 'I hate to stand in long lines at the grocery store'; they think, 'That other shopper deliberately sped up and beat me to my rightful position in the line!' — and then they seethe. People who score high on measures of cynical hostility tend to get more cardiovascular disease, metabolic disease and often die at younger ages. They also have shorter telomeres."


Smoking Will Absolutely Age You 20 Years

no smoking sign

Smoking will accelerate your rate of aging both on a surface and a cellular level. "Not only does smoking break down our skin's elasticity and strength, it can shrink the size of our blood vessels and limit the oxygen our skin receives, leading to wrinkled, sagging skin," says Dr. Brownfield. "We don't often consider DNA in our hair follicles to be a living thing, but toxic chemicals found in cigarettes can actually damage that DNA and cause hair to thin, turn gray or fall out altogether. And nicotine, the most popular chemical associated with tobacco, is the reason for stained teeth and skin, leading to that aged yellow look." And to protect your life and the lives of others, don't visit any of these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.

Ferozan Mast
Ferozan Mast is a science, health and wellness writer with a passion for making science and research-backed information accessible to a general audience. Read more about Ferozan
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