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Study: Stress Speeds Up Aging

Posted - Dec. 6, 2004 at 8:10 a.m.



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Dr. Kim Mulvihill reporting It seems like a no-brainer-- stress can be bad for your health. Now Bay area scientists have shown for the first time just how harmful stress can be -- impacting our dna and taking years off our lives.

It sounds pretty grim, doesn't it! The most stunning result suggests those who think they are under heavy stress may undergo the equivalent of ten years of aging.

"What is stress? Stress is... " honk honk honk. The traffic, the job, the kids. There's no doubt about it: stress is a fact of life.

But now for the first time, evidence suggests too much stress not only gets under your skin, but deep into the cells of your body, and may actually speed up how you age.

Doctor Elissa Epel and Doctor Elizabeth Blackburn led a team of scientists from UC San Francisco. They wanted to study stress on a molecular level, not just any stress but chronic stress.

"The grinding day to day stress where you are out of control and feel overwhelmed."

They tracked fifty eight women -- all of whom were biological mothers -thirty-nine cared for a child who was chronically ill, the other nineteen had healthy children and served as a control group.

Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph.D/ UCSF Researcher: "Caregiving stress is the kind of prototypical chronic stress where you are in charge of a loved one's life and every day their needs come before yours, usually, so it's really quite demanding."

Researchers found chronic stress had a big impact on the biological factors of aging, factors hidden deep in our cells called telomeres. Like caps on the ends of shoelaces, telomeres help protect our chromosomes.

Each time a cell divides, the telomere shrinks. An enzyme called telomerase restores part of the telomere. But after many rounds of dividing, the telomere gets so short, the cell dies.

Researchers measured telomeres and telomerase in the women's blood cells, and found -

Elissa Epel, Ph.D/ UCSF Researcher: "The more stress somebody had and the more years of stressful caregiving they'd been in, the less telomerase they had and the shorter the telemeres were."

The biggest surprise was women who perceived they were under heavy stress, also had shorter telomeres.

"It's really our perceptions that matter, that can have this phisical effect."

It probably takes years for chronic psychological stress to affect telomeres, which means it may be possible to intervene.

The researchers now hope to study whether stress reduction techniques - like yoga, meditation, or cognitive-behavioral would help reverse these cellular changes and slow the rate of aging.

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