How Stress Ages You

By Kristie Reilly and Sherry Baker @SherryNewsViews
June 12, 2023
How Stress Ages You

Chronic stress can age you prematurely, but working on lowering your stress may help you stay younger longer. Here's what you should know.

Stress has long been known to impact health. During emotionally tough times, your face may look tired and haggard. You may feel exhausted or even develop an illness.

Stress affects all systems of your body, including your nervous, musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, hormonal, and even reproductive systems, the American Psychological Association points out.


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What does chronic stress do to your body?

While conducting research at the University of California, molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, discovered the molecular structure of telomeres, the ends of chromosomes that act as protective caps to preserve your genetic information. Along with her colleagues, Blackburn also discovered an enzyme, telomerase, which is needed to maintain telomeres. Blackburn received the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her research. It also helped explain how chronic stress impacts health and lifespan.

Stress can impact telomeres negatively, resulting in multiple impacts on the division of cells and even DNA replication. That means chronic stress can speed up aging.

To understand how it works, consider an ordinary strand of DNA. As the cells in your body divide throughout life, each division produces two nearly exact copies of the original cell — except for one thing. Each time a cell divides, it loses a tiny bit of the cap, the protective telomere, at the end of the DNA in each cell.

As a result, over the human lifespan, telomeres become shorter, and you have fewer of them as you age. An infant has about 8,000 of the base pairs that make up DNA in each telomere. An adult has around 3,000 base pairs, but they decrease over time. Someone over 65 will have only about 1,500 base pairs.

The enzyme telomerase normally acts as a last-minute savior for those ever-shortening strands of DNA, staving off further shortening and cell death, adding base pairs as long as possible. (After about 50 to 70 cell divisions, human cells have so little DNA left, they're no longer able to replicate.)

Chronic stress appears to hasten aging and may increase the risk of many medical problems because it slows protective telomerase activity, shortening telomere length.

Blackburn and co-researchers studied a group of mothers caring for chronically ill children and another group caring for healthy kids. The team found that the longer a woman cared for a chronically ill child and experienced chronic stress, the shorter her telomeres were, and her telomerase activity decreased.

In fact, telomere length was connected to stress in both groups of mothers, even among those with healthy children, if a woman experienced chronic stress from childcare. The higher a woman's perceived stress, no matter the health of her child, the shorter her telomeres were.

Simply put, stressed moms appeared to be aging faster on a cellular level.

Reducing stress can boost telomere length

While no one can avoid all stress, you can reduce it or learn how to calm your body’s reaction to stress. For example, Dean Ornish, MD, an alternative medicine researcher, co-authored a study with Blackburn and other colleagues. They found that telomere length and telomerase activity are not set in stone, but variable — and they can increase with lifestyle changes.

Ornish put 10 men with low-risk prostate cancer on a fairly rigorous program that included mindfulness meditation, along with other lifestyle changes: A healthy, plant-based diet, daily exercise, and a weekly support group. Another 25 men with low-risk prostate cancer, acting as controls, followed a watchful waiting protocol, the standard care, but made no other changes to their habits.

At the end of five years, the 10 men in the intervention group increased their telomere length by 10 percent. The more they adhered to the recommended lifestyle changes, the longer their telomeres were. Meanwhile, telomeres among men in the control group shrunk by 3 percent, a rate that is about average as people age.

Even something as simple as mindfulness mediation can slow telomere shortening. While people may not always be able to avoid stress, reframing it as a challenge can also help, Blackburn's research has found. Exercise, a healthy diet, and not smoking will also keep telomeres longer — and that, research suggests, may keep you younger.


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June 12, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA and Janet O'Dell, RN