[E]ven in the quieter professions, there is a toil and a labour of the mind, if not of the body, which seldom leaves a man’s looks to the natural effect of time. The lawyer plods, quite care-worn; the physician is up at all hours, and travelling in all weather; and even the clergyman … is obliged to go into infected rooms, and expose his health and looks to all the injury of a poisonous atmosphere.
In this nearly two-hundred-year-old observation, the fictional Mrs. Clay referred to only men, but her comment would apply equally to women today. In the U.S. (where we spell “labour” without the ‘u’), just under half of all law school students are women, and the “toil and labour of the mind” of the profession into which they will enter — its demanding hours, the adversarial nature of what lawyers do, and the poisonous competitive culture in many firms — is at least as unkind to women as it is for the men. It may even be more taxing for women in light of the discriminatory practices that result in lower salaries and fewer partnerships and the societal expectation that working women will still shoulder most of the duties at home.
Conventional wisdom suggests, as Jane Austen via Mrs. Clay observed, that stress can affect physical appearance. Scientific research also suggests a relationship between chronic stress and wrinkling, greying, and other physical characteristics associated with aging, though the exact effect of stress hormones on appearance and health is difficult to discern.
Men and women with high levels of the stress hormone cortisol (in the top tertile) have “a five times increased risk of dying of cardiovascular disease.”
Women in “high strain” jobs — i.e., “a demanding job that provides limited opportunity for decision-making or to use one’s creative or individual skills,” which frankly describes most lawyers below the senior partner level — have a 70% greater risk of heart attack, and both job strain and job insecurity predisposed women to having “high blood pressure, increased cholesterol, and excess body weight.”
Stress even affects DNA, reducing the length of telomeres (the caps on the ends of chromosomes), and thus increasing the risk of “cancer, stroke, vascular dementia, cardiovascular disease, obesity, osteoporosis and diabetes.”
And, of course, having high work and life demands doesn’t leave much time to take care of ourselves, probably making many of us look much older than we otherwise would for our chronological ages.
Whatever we look like, though, the more concerning effect of stress is its potential impact on our quality of life and ultimately on our longevity.
Thankfully, some research suggests that our telomeres can bounce back with an adjusted lifestyle, and, obviously, there is enormous individual variability when it comes to how we handle stress, how we age, and how long we’ll live.
That’s good. I’m actually really looking forward to my 80s. As author and neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in July of last year on the cusp of his 80th birthday in The Joy of Old Age (No Kidding), “I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.”
As of today, I’ve got only 47 years to go until I am “freed from these factitious urgencies.” The big question is whether economic conditions will allow retirement by that golden age.
PS. My darling daughter told me this morning: “Happy Birthday! You’re older, but you only look about eight.” She’s six!