Stress Will Make You Old and Decrepit

Here's some bad news: being stressed, or even thinking about future stress, makes your cells age faster. But relax! Don't worry! I can practically see your telomeres shortening!

That's what a new study says happens to people who go through a lot of stress, according to ScienceDaily. Researchers looked at both depressed and mentally healthy people, asked them about their stress, and measured both their telomeres — the "caps" at the ends of chromosomes — and their levels of the stress hormone cortisol. They found that depressed people had shorter telomeres, but so did people whose cortisol levels were low, a state associated with "chronic stress and with poor ability to cope with stress." The study authors say they're not sure yet exactly what role telomeres play in aging, but "the link between stress and telomere shortening is growing stronger."

And that stress can apparently be in the future. Another study, also reported on ScienceDaily, looked at 50 women, about half of whom were caregivers for relatives with dementia. They told the women they'd be doing stressful math and public speaking tasks later on, then measured how threatened they felt and how long their telomeres were. The ones who felt more freaked out by the upcoming trials tended to have shorter telomeres. Said study author Aoife O'Donovan,

Our findings are preliminary for now, but they suggest that the major forms of stress in your life may influence how your respond to more minor forms of stress, such as losing your keys, getting stuck in traffic or leading a meeting at work. Our goal is to gain better understanding of how psychological stress promotes biological aging so that we can design targeted interventions that reduce risk for disease in stressed individuals. We now have preliminary evidence that higher anticipatory threat perception may be one such mechanism.

As the authors of the first study admit, we don't know if shortened telomeres actually cause cells to age, or if they're just a sign of aging. We do know that as cells get older and divide more, their telomeres tend to shorten — and that short telomeres are associated with a number of age-related diseases. So even if they don't directly cause bad shit to happen, short telomeres are a mark of an old cell, meaning stress could be aging your body on a microscopic level. Which is another thing to stress out about.

Anticipation of Stressful Situations Accelerates Cellular Aging [ScienceDaily]
Does Depression Contribute to the Aging Process? [ScienceDaily]

Image via Chepko Danil Vitalevich/Shutterstock.com