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Stress speeds aging: “Effects of emotions down to the cellular level”

December 1st, 2004 · No Comments

For the first time, it seems scientists have been able to demonstrate a connection between emotional stress and physical aging. I quote from the NPR clip I heard this afternoon while pulling into the driveway. Fascinated, I kept the kids in the van for a few minutes until I could hear the end of the report.

Here’s the NPR link from today’s Day to Day program Study: Stress Linked to Chromosome Damage, Aging.

Rob Stein of The Washington Post about a new study that helps explain the link between stress and aging. Scientists believe stress shortens the tips of chromosomes in human cells, hastening the process of aging.

What intrigued me most from this report:

  • the study (in PNAS, although I can’t find it in the on-line November 30) revealed the effects of emotion down to the cellular level – stress affects chromosomes. What we feel impacts who we are in a physiological sense.
  • the fact that this study involved collaboration between a biochemist and a psychiatrist and was cross-disciplinary work (Elissa Epel, a psychiatrist at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) and Elizabeth Blackburn, a professor of biology and physiology at UCSF are both mentioned in the article).
  • the research subjects were women, mothers of ill or healthy children.
  • the study of “perceived stress” as Stein explained it on the radio clip. The women were asked what was happening in their lives, but they were also asked what they thought their level of stress was. What mattered was perceived stress not objective stress.

    Here are quotes from Rob Stein’s article in the Washington Post
    Study Is First to Confirm That Stress Speeds Aging

    Scientists have identified the first direct link between stress and aging, a finding that could explain why intense, long-term emotional strain can make people get sick and grow old before their time.


    “There is this deeply held belief that stress leads to premature aging. But there is no hard evidence for how this might happen,” said Elissa Epel, a psychiatrist at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF), who helped conduct the research. “This is the first time that psychological stress has been linked to a cellular indicator of aging in healthy people.”


    Epel and her colleagues studied 39 women ages 20 to 50 who had been experiencing grinding stress for years because they were caring for a child suffering from a serious chronic illness, such as autism or cerebral palsy, and 19 other very similar women whose children were healthy.

    The researchers examined structures inside cells called telomeres. Telomeres are the caps at the ends of chromosomes — the molecules that carry genes. Every time a cell divides, telomeres get shorter. In the natural aging process, the telomeres eventually get so short that cells can no longer divide, and they then die.


    The researchers found that chronic stress appears to accelerate this process. The longer a woman had been caring for a sick child, the shorter her telomeres, the lower her levels of telomerase and the higher her levels of “oxidative stress.” Oxidative stress is a process in which “free radicals” in the body damage DNA, including telomeres.

    A key factor appears to be people’s perception of how much stress they are under, the researchers found. The greater a woman’s perception of her stress in the study, the worse she scored on all these factors. Compared with women with the lowest levels of perceived stress, women with the highest perceived stress had telomeres equivalent to someone 10 years older, the researchers found.

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