News & Perspectives

Psychological Stress Linked to Shingles in Older Adults

What the Study Showed
How It Was Done
Why It's Important

What the Study Showed
North Carolina researchers have found that the way people experience a stressful life event increases their risk of developing shingles (herpes zoster). This Duke University study was carried out in older people (a population commonly afflicted by this painful skin condition), and reported in the nationally recognized Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

How It Was Done
A widely respected technique for assessing stressful life events in older people--the Geriatric Scale of Recent Life Events--was administered to 101 individuals with shingles. For comparison, 101 individuals of the same age, sex, and race with no active shingles were surveyed as well.

Participants were asked to describe recent stressful events--the illness of a spouse or moving to another home--and how they felt about what happened. The goal was to measure the number of stressful events that had occurred as well as what type of psychological strain the event provoked in that particular person.

Questions were posed to all the participants by telephone.

Why It's Important
Experts have long been mystified about why people do or don't develop shingles--a condition caused by a reawakening of the same virus that causes chickenpox.

The strength of an individual's immune system is now seen as a possible component in the appearance of a shingles infection. People with immune systems weakened by illness, or those undergoing cancer chemotherapy or infected with HIV, for example, are at higher risk for coming down with shingles. Age also brings a general decline in the immune system, and shingles correspondingly tends to surface in those over age 50.

Another factor long considered important in immune-system weakening is psychological stress. In this study, Duke University researchers found that so-called "negative" life events were more common in the group that developed shingles than in the group that didn't. More to the point, however, the findings indicate that the way a person deals with stressful events makes a big difference; those who developed shingles were significantly more likely to perceive an event as stressful than were those in the shingles-free control group.

Americans are bombarded with information about the health hazards of stress. This study is additional evidence that when it comes to preventing shingles, the key may be to find ways to handle stress more effectively--whether it's through exercise, meditation, or some other technique that makes sense for a given individual.

Source: Schmader K, et al. Are stressful life events risk factors for herpes zoster? Journal of the American Geriatrics Society 1990;38(11):1188-1194.

Date Published: 04/19/2001
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