DEAR DOCTOR K:
I recently heard that studies are showing that stress makes us age faster. Is there anything to that?
I’ll bet you are referring to studies about the effects of ongoing stress on our cells. Each of us is a collection of 13 trillion cells. Anything that causes our cells to age causes us to age. And chronic stress does cause our cells to age faster.
When we consider the signs of aging, we think about our appearance, our mobility and our physical vigor. However, our cells also display signs of aging. One sign of a cell’s age is the length of its telomeres.
What are telomeres? Inside every cell are the chromosomes that carry most of our genes. Telomeres are at the two ends of the chromosomes. The older a cell is, the more times it has divided. Every time a cell divides, its telomeres get a little shorter.
What does this have to do with stress? In 2004, two scientists, professor Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. Elissa Epel at the University of California-San Francisco Medical Center, reported a study of mothers who were the primary caregivers of chronically ill kids. They found that the telomeres in their white blood cells (which help fight infection) were shorter than the telomeres of women of the same age who were living without such stress. In fact, the mothers living with chronic stress had cells that were about 10 years older — as judged by the length of the telomeres.
Other scientists have generally found the same relationship between chronic stress and the length of telomeres. And they’ve found it in people of all ages, from kindergarten-aged kids to people in the 60- to 80-year age range. For example, kids exposed to lots of violence, and kids raised in orphanages, have shorter telomeres than kids of the same age not exposed to the same stress.
Even more striking, many studies are finding that people with shorter telomeres are more prone to various major diseases and to have a shorter lifespan.
In an article in the scientific journal Nature, Blackburn and Epel wrote that preliminary studies show that stress-reduction techniques might be slowing the shortening of telomeres. Whether or not that proves to be true, chronic stress is linked to alcohol abuse, smoking and obesity — each of which makes us more prone to many diseases, and to dying young.
Some doctors and scientists are predicting that we will someday routinely measure the length of telomeres in our white blood cells as part of a regular health checkup. They argue that this would identify people more vulnerable to disease and most in need of stress reduction.
How does chronic stress affect the length of telomeres? Several hormones are overproduced by people living with chronic stress, particularly the hormone called cortisol. Professor Blackburn, whose research on telomeres was honored with the Nobel Prize in 2009, says that laboratory studies show that higher levels of cortisol shorten the telomeres.
So chronic stress really does cause our bodies to age more rapidly. It’s important to identify the causes of stress in your life and explore how to lessen them.