Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Stress and worries cause you to age faster

Worrying about things you have to take care of often leads to stress. It is also often said that stress is bad for your health, and makes you age faster: there are proverbs claiming one gets grey hair from stressful events. Scientists from the University of California in San Francisco discovered that worrying about, and anticipating, future stressful events actually leads to increased ageing speed. That is what they found when they looked at the cellular health of their participants. A different group of researchers already found that people with high stress levels die younger.

In their study, the scientists compared women that had to take care of relatives with a form of dementia with those that did not carry this burden. Having to take care of someone with dementia usually causes elevated levels of stress and can cause worry when thinking of, or anticipating, future events. Whether worries about the future can affect the speed at which you age has been something that has kept scientists busy for a while.

Experiments and results
Participants were subjected to stressful tasks, such as public speaking and solving math tasks. What they found is that women which in normal life have to take care of relatives with dementia showed higher levels of stress when anticipating the stressful tasks they have to perform. That does not mean they were actually more stressful when performing their tasks. Instead, the thought of having to perform stressful tasks in the future elevated their level of anxiousness.

Scientists then looked at the cellular level, to see whether stress levels could be related to something biological. It appears that people who anticipate future events with elevated levels of stress have shorter telomeres. Telomeres function as 'caps' for the DNA. They cover the edges, which helps to preserve the genetic code. Without them, our valuable blueprint for life would slowly be degraded: code would be 'eaten' away, which results in the inability to make functional copies or read the code correctly. Telomeres therefore protect the integrity of the DNA. Sadly, when genetic code is copied, for example to make daughter cells, telomeres get shortened. Because most cells lack the enzyme to elongate them back to original length, telomere shortening is something associated with the ageing process.

This is an interesting piece of combining psychology and biology. In their study, the San Francisco scientists have shown that stressfully anticipating events leads to something that measurably makes you older. While there are more factors deciding how old you actually are on a cellular level, this is an important discovery linking stress and biology. Telomere shortening has been implied in various diseases, such as cancer, which makes it even more relevant. 

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