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Stress can speed the ageing process, sheep study shows

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13 August 2009

A lifetime of stress can take its toll on the body and accelerate the ageing process, a BBSRC-funded study of wild animals suggests.

Scientists found that wild sheep forced to contend with surviving difficult winter conditions tend to be more vulnerable to illness as they get older. The findings suggest that the stress has a long-term effect on their health.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh found that sheep which had been repeatedly exposed to stressful situations – such as several harsh winters over a lifetime – were worst affected. The study of Soay sheep on the island of St Kilda suggests that persistent or repeated stress has a cumulative effect on long-term health and ageing.

Researchers examined data for a common illness in adult sheep – stomach worms. They found that as the sheep got older, they tended to be more vulnerable to attack from worms.

The study also showed that those sheep which had suffered most stress in their lives aged faster than those sheep which had suffered less stress.

Understanding the effects of stress may help scientists better understand the ageing process.

Adam Hayward, of the University’s School of Biological Sciences, who carried out the study, said: “As we get older, our health tends to decline, but in addition to this, environmental factors make us age – our age in terms of years may not correspond to the body’s true age.

“In the case of the Soay sheep, exposure to stress may have an irreparable effect on their health; persistent stress may weaken their immune system, making them age faster than sheep which experienced less stress.”

The study, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Natural Environment Research Council, was published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.



The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £450M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. BBSRC carries out its mission by funding internationally competitive research, providing training in the biosciences, fostering opportunities for knowledge transfer and innovation and promoting interaction with the public and other stakeholders on issues of scientific interest in universities, centres and institutes.

The Babraham Institute, Institute for Animal Health, Institute of Food Research, John Innes Centre and Rothamsted Research are Institutes of BBSRC. The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.

External contact

Adam Hayward, School of Biological Sciences

tel: 0131 650 5440

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