Stress and Aging
Feeling a little STRESSED lately?
Common sense tells you that people under stress age faster, doesn't it? We know stressed-out people LOOK older. They look haggard. Their posture changes. Who knows what else?
Well, I'll tell you what else. You'll want to listen up, because now science has proof of what we've suspected all along.
A group of scientists decided it was time to figure out how stress gets "under the skin" (as they put it)[*]. To do that, they isolated a small piece of DNA protein known as the telomere.
Stay with me for just a moment as I explain, as I understand it, the function of the telomere in maintaining your health. The telomere is responsible for keeping chromosomes stable as they divide during normal cellular metabolism. Each time a chromosome divides, a little tiny bit of its telomere drops off. Because of this quality, the telomere is a good marker for a cell's biological (versus chronological) "age."
We all know that certain diseases are more common in older people than in younger ones. One of the reasons for that has to do with the "age" of the tissues involved. And that is determined, at least in part, by the condition of your telomeres.
Both the telomere itself and its related enzyme (telomerase, which protects telomere length) are affected by the cellular environment. Specifically, they're affected by oxidative stress. (The same kind of oxidative stress that anti-oxidant nutrients relieve.) Oxidative stress is related to psychological stress.
Stress and the aging process
The scientists set up an experiment to test their theory that chronic psychological stress would lead to shortening of the telomeres, accelerating the body's aging process.
They gathered a group of 58 women between 20 and 50 years of age and asked them to fill out a questionnaire on perceived stress. Each of the women had at least one child at home. To make things more interesting, 39 of them were the parent of a chronically ill child - these women were identified with the term "caregivers." (The researchers figured this factor would increase their stress!)
After controlling for factors like age and use of oral contraceptives, they found some very interesting results.
Within the caregiving group, the more years of caregiving, the shorter the telomere length.
Across both groups, women who reported higher levels of perceived stress had shorter telomeres. Perceived stress turned out to be a more reliable factor than their inclusion in the "caregiving" or "non-caregiving" group.
The women who reported higher perceived stress also had significantly higher Body Mass Indicator scores (they were more overweight).
By examining the amount of shortening in the telomeres, the scientists were able to estimate that the lymphocytes (part of the immune system) of the highest-stress group had aged prematurely by the equivalent of 9 - 17 years compared with the lowest-stress group.
Chronic or perceived psychological stress affected cellular aging in at least 3 different ways: immune cell function, oxidative stress, and activity of the enzyme telomerase.
While the scientists realize there is more exploration to be done, these findings are really significant!
Oh no! It's all in the perception!
Let me draw your attention to one obvious fact. Perceived stress was a more damaging factor than the objective measure (caregiving a chronically ill child) that the researchers had initially set up. That means that some members of the caregiver group who managed stress particularly well were not so adversely affected by their situations as less-effective stress managers in the control group.
As the scientists report, "Women with the highest levels of perceived stress have telomeres shorter on average by the equivalent of at least one decade of additional aging compared to low stress women. These findings have implications for understanding how, at the cellular level, stress may promote earlier onset of age-related diseases."
What does this say for you and me? Become an effective stress manager! I don't know about you, but I'd like to stick around healthy for another decade if I have the chance!
Take a deep breath and download the free guide "Transform Stress Into Power." You'll feel better!
[* Epel, E., Blackburn, E., Lin, J., et al. "Accelerated telomere shortening in response to life stress." PNAS December 7, 2004, vol 101, no. 49, pp. 17312-17315. http://www.pnas.org]
Elizabeth Eckert can help you explore how simple everyday choices create health - or undermine even the best of intentions. With a background that ranges from energy medicine to structural bodywork to developmental psychology, this "Stick-To-It Coach" has the experience to support you in creating the healthiest possible expression of - you!