Stressful life events, social support, and epigenetic aging in the Women's Health Initiative

J Am Geriatr Soc. 2024 Feb;72(2):349-360. doi: 10.1111/jgs.18726. Epub 2023 Dec 27.


Background: Elevated psychosocial stress has been linked with accelerated biological aging, including composite DNA methylation (DNAm) markers that predict aging-related outcomes ("epigenetic age"). However, no study has examined whether stressful life events (SLEs) are associated with epigenetic age acceleration in postmenopausal women, an aging population characterized by increased stress burden and disease risk.

Methods: We leveraged the Women's Health Initiative, a large muti-ancestry cohort of postmenopausal women with available psychosocial stress measures over the past year and epigenomic data. SLEs and social support were ascertained via self-report questionnaires. Whole blood DNAm array (450 K) data were used to calculate five DNAm-based predictors of chronological age, health span and life span, and telomere length (HorvathAge, HannumAge, PhenoAge, GrimAge, DNAmTL).

Results: After controlling for potential confounders, higher SLE burden was significantly associated with accelerated epigenetic aging, as measured by GrimAge (β: 0.34, 95% CI: 0.08, 0.59) and DNAmTL (β: -0.016, 95% CI: -0.028, -0.004). Exploratory analyses showed that SLEs-GrimAge associations were stronger in Black women as compared to other races/ethnicities and in those with lower social support levels. In women with lower social support, SLEs-DNAmTL associations showed opposite association in Hispanic women as compared to other race/ethnicity groups.

Conclusions: Our findings suggest that elevated stress burden is associated with accelerated epigenetic aging in postmenopausal women. Lower social support and/or self-reported race/ethnicity may modify the association of stress with epigenetic age acceleration. These findings advance understanding of how stress may contribute to aging-related outcomes and have important implications for disease prevention and treatment in aging women.

Keywords: aging; epigenetics; health disparities; psychosocial stress; social support.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aging* / genetics
  • Epigenesis, Genetic
  • Epigenomics*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Social Support
  • Women's Health