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.
Chronic stress appears to hasten the shriveling of the tips of the bundles of genes inside cells, which shortens their lifespan and speeds the body’s deterioration, according to a small but first-of-its-kind study involving mothers caring for chronically ill children.
The study focused on the telomeres in the chromosomes of particular immune cells of 58 women between the ages of 20 and 50. Telomeres cap the ends of chromosomes and shorten as cells reproduce, a measure of age. When they reach a minimum level the cells can no longer reproduce.
The report, published in the current issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the telomeres in the cells of women under stress had undergone the equivalent of 10 years of additional aging, compared to women living more normal lives.
“Chronic stress appears to have the potential to shorten the life of cells, at least immune cells,” lead author Elissa Epel of UC San Francisco said in a statement. “This is the first time that psychological stress has been linked to a cellular indicator of aging in healthy people.”
The findings could lead to new ways to detect the early physical effects of stress and monitor whether attempts to alleviate its effects are working, Epel said.
“The results were striking,” said coauthor Elizabeth Blackburn, also of UC San Francisco.
If the findings are confirmed, they could provide the first explanation on a cellular level for the well-documented association between psychological stress and increased risk of physical disease, as well as the common perception that unrelenting emotional pressure accelerates the aging process.
While cautioning that the findings needed to be confirmed by additional research, other scientists said the results represented an unprecedented step in deciphering the intricacies of the mind-body connection.
“This is a real landmark observation,” said Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University, who wrote a commentary accompanying the paper. “This is a huge interdisciplinary leap ... a great study.”
Dr. Dennis Novack, who studies the link between emotions and health at Drexel University College of Medicine, agreed.
“Everybody’s trying to figure out what causes aging and premature aging. We all know that stress seems to age people -- just look at the aging of our presidents after four years,” he said. The new study “demonstrated that there is no such thing as a separation of mind and body -- the very molecules in our bodies are responsive to our psychological environment.”
The research was funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Hellman Family Fund, UC San Francisco, the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression, the Steven and Michele Kirsch Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund and the Dana Foundation.