Save Your Telomeres!
Stress doesn’t just make a person feel older. In a very real sense, it can speed up aging. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that stress can add years to the age of individual immune system cells. The study focused on telomeres, caps on the end of chromosomes. Whenever a cell divides, the telomeres in that cell get a little shorter and a little more time runs off the clock.
Researchers checked both the telomeres and the stress levels of 58 healthy premenopausal women. The stunning result: On average, the immune system cells of highly stressed women had aged by an extra 10 years. The study didn’t explain how stress adds years to cells making up the immune system. As the study authors write, “the exact mechanisms that connect the mind to the cell are unknown.” Researchers do have a not very surprising theory, though: Stress hormones could be somehow shortening telomers and cutting the life span of cells.
“Our findings suggest that traumatic and chronic stressful life events are associated with shortening of telomeres in cells of the immune system, but that physical activity may moderate this impact,” said co-author Jue Lin, PhD, associate research biochemist in the laboratory of senior author and Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, professor of biochemistry and biophysics at UCSF.
And if all this weren’t enough of a pile on: stress is now being linked to excess belly fat! Prolonged stress results in increased production of cortisol – our primary stress hormone. This increase in cortisol triggers an ancient biochemical reaction in us, and as a result, the body responds as if it is starving and automatically stores fat in the belly.
My take away? We’ve known for many years that we need to attend to biological, psychological, social, cultural, and spiritual factors to enhance our lives in terms of quality of life and quantity of years. It is truly remarkable when Nobel Prize winning lab research essentially corroberates the popular discussion going on about these topics. It also makes Bobby McFerrin and his “Don’t worry, be happy” refrain from the early 1980’s seem eerily a part of our modern zeitgeist.
So, to repeart: exercise, managing stress well, and engaging in some kind of contemplative practice (meditation), on a REGULAR basis, all may assist in our efforts to maximize our chances of a long and high quality healthy life. Of course, as Dr. Blackburn emphasizes, we can’t control all of the variables when it goes to disease and death. Yet, we can control some of them. Perhaps the challenge is, can we really do it? Can we do the right thing for ourselves by engaging in health promoting (rather than health damaging) behaviors? Exercise, contemplative practices, stress management all should be taken seriously…very seriously. This is perhaps the challenge for most of us. At least we might have additional motivation to do so when research, even at the molecular level, encourages us to do so. Right?