Telomeres and Aging: How Perceived Stress Impacts Your Health
If you’ve ever been in a stressful situation that went on for some time, you probably wondered or worried if all that stress was having a negative effect on you. Unfortunately, the answer is yes. The consequences of stress do indeed impact the body in many ways.
Hans Selye, a Hungarian endocrinologist, and stress researcher described it this way: “Every stress leaves an indelible scar, and the organism pays for its survival after a stressful situation by becoming a little older.”
Until recent decades we had little idea what stress was doing to us at the cellular level. Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, a Tasmanian-born researcher of human DNA, was curious to discover more about the molecular nature of the ends of chromosomes. Little did she know this curiosity would be central to her research for the next 30 years and ultimately garner her a Nobel Prize.
Blackburn began her studies on an organism known as Tetrahymena thermophila, a single-celled organism common in freshwater ponds. Tetrahymena never got old or died, which intrigued Blackburn. What she discovered was so ground-breaking, she jointly won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Her discovery? It all has to do with the maintenance of telomeres, the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes, and their pivotal role in human health. Dr. Blackburn describes telomeres as the part of our DNA that keeps genetic material from unraveling, rather like the protective plastic tips on the end of a shoelace.
When telomeres are healthy and well maintained, cells are renewing, health is promoted, and we feel young and lively. Conversely, when telomeres are not healthy, we feel unwell, look haggard, and premature aging and disease can be the result. (This good news is this doesn’t have to be the case, so read on!).
Blackburn also identified telomerase, an enzyme located inside cells. Its function is to add the caps, the telomeres, onto strands of DNA. Telomerase regenerates these protective caps and, in doing so, helps these vital regions of our DNA to avoid damage.
Since her original discovery, Blackburn has taken part in dozens of studies on telomeres and telomerase over a long career. These studies demonstrate that a healthy lifestyle, good attitude, and stress avoidance can lengthen telomeres and keep them well maintained. This research underlines the fact that it is well within our power to slow cellular aging and reduce our risk of serious disease.
How Chronic Stress Damages Telomeres
When cells divide, the telomere is not fully replicated because of limitations in enzymes that synthesize DNA molecules. This leads to shortening of the telomere with every replication. Telomerase, as mentioned above, is an enzyme that synthesizes the telomeric DNA strand on the end of the chromosome, thus extending it .
There are many things that can degrade telomere length, but chronic stress is one of the most prevalent. This is not particularly surprising. You can feel the effects of stress in your body: you are emotional, your heart is beating faster, your gut is churning.
You can feel the physiological effects of stress on your body which is caused by stress hormones that are coursing throughout the cells of your body. It has been observed that the longer the period of stress, the more damage it can do.
The effects of stress on telomeres has been well documented. In a 2004 study, Blackburn and fellow researchers found that caregiver women with the highest levels of perceived stress had, on average, up to 50% shorter telomeres than women in the low-stress group. The more years the women had been in the stressful situation, the shorter their telomere length. This equated to at least one decade of additional aging compared to women in the low-stress group !
Your Perception of Your Stress Level Matters
That word – perceived – is an important one. Undoubtedly, all of the women who were caregivers in the above study had some sort of stress, as do many of us. However, the perception of stress will be somewhat more subjective due to the psychological makeup of each person. That perception of stress and how one reacts to it is more important than one might think. (More information on that distinction below.)
Chronic stress affects the immune system too. A 2007 study found that chronic stress was associated with accelerated immune cell aging and altered T-cell function due to excessive telomere loss .
Paradoxically, excessive levels of telomerase can be just as much a problem as inadequate levels of the enzyme. The cause of these different findings on telomerase levels under stress has yet to be determined. In a 2010 study on how telomerase activity changes when people are under acute psychological stress, researchers stated, “telomerase appears dynamic and responsive to stress .”
Negative thinking can also create damage to telomeres. Blackburn’s team demonstrated this in a 2009 study on the effect of negative thinking and pessimism on white blood cells (part of the immune system) in postmenopausal women. The study demonstrated that there was a link between negative thinking and pessimism and shorter, degraded telomeres .
What If You Can’t Escape the Stressful Situation?
As previously discussed, the perception of stress is important. There are many teachings that although we cannot change what happens to us, we can change how we react to these situations.
There are often stressful life situations from which it is just not possible to escape. For instance, major health problems for you or a close family member; being involved with someone dealing with an addiction; losing your home; major financial difficulties; being the victim of sexual or other types of harassment; loss of employment; long periods of unemployment; going through a divorce; ongoing arguments with a spouse or close family member or friend; being a caregiver for an adult or child with a serious illness; or the death of someone close to you. All of these things (and more) are major life challenges.
If you cannot get out of a stressful situation, the one thing you can do is train yourself to react to the situation differently. Dr. Blackburn calls this developing “stress resilience.” Our perception of stress, rather than the actual situation, is the major determinant. Studies show that being under chronic stress does not inevitably lead to damaged telomeres. Interestingly, it seems that our attitude toward stress and how we deal with what comes makes all the difference.
Your Attitude Impacts Your Telomeres
In a 2016 study, telomere lengths were measured in 76 combat-exposed male veterans. Of these, 41 of the veterans were assessed to be psychiatrically healthy; 18 had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and 17 had both PTSD and major depressive disorder (MDD). This study found that childhood trauma, the severity of perceived stress, and general psychological symptoms were more closely related to a shorter telomere length than were the severity of PTSD or MDD .
According to Dr. Blackburn, a telomere-shortening attitude is when one reacts to stress and pressure poorly, activating the “fight-or-flight” stress response. This causes blood vessels to constrict and stress hormones to course throughout the body, all of which is harmful to telomeres.
Blackburn says that stress hormones like cortisol dampen down the maintenance of telomeres. Indeed, one 2008 study found that in test tubes, exposure to cortisol (a hormone released in stressful situations) reduced telomerase activity for three days .
On the other hand, a healthier attitude toward stress appears to be less damaging to telomeres. If you can see stress as a challenge to be met and overcome, that sort of “bring-it-on” attitude allows more blood flow to the heart and brain, and a briefer spike of stress hormones like cortisol.
Tips for Keeping Your Telomeres Healthy
In her book “The Telomere Effect” , Blackburn shares that good mental health is extremely beneficial for good telomere maintenance. There are many things you can do to promote good mental health. Adopting a be-here-now attitude and focusing on what is in front of you, rather than worrying about the past or the future is especially helpful.
Practicing a specific type of meditation known as Kirtan Kriya was shown in a 2013 study to have beneficial effects. The study participants were people caring for relatives with dementia. After practicing this method for a mere 12 minutes per day for two months, the telomerase levels of this group rose by 43%. The control group, on the other hand, listened to soothing music and their telomerase levels only rose 3.7% .
Regular meditation appears to be just as helpful. A small 2011 study found that people who meditated daily had increased telomerase activity compared with the non-meditating control group .
Exercise is also good for telomeres. In 2010, Blackburn and fellow researchers investigated telomere maintenance as it related to mindset and lifestyle in post-menopausal women. They found that in periods of severe stress, even 15 minutes of exercise per day was enough to substantially buffer the damage to telomeres .
Keeping the weight down and stopping smoking is also beneficial. A 2005 study found that both being obese and smoking cigarettes decreased telomere length in 1,122 women aged 18-76 years .
Having a good relationship with another human being is also associated with longer telomere length. We are intensely social beings, after all, so that comes as no surprise. Research reported in 2016 found that those who were separated or divorced had shorter telomere lengths than people who were married for a long time or had never been married .
A good night’s sleep makes a difference too. A 2014 study of obese individuals found that poor sleep quality predicted shorter telomere length in the immune cells of those with high perceived stress, but not in the low-stress participants .
There is that word again: perceived. The perception of stress is a determining factor in telomere length. The late Louise Hay, the founder of Hay House publishing, was fond of sharing this affirmation: I Change My Life… When I Change My Thinking.
The science of telomeres demonstrates how perceived stress can harm us right down to our cells. If you feel your stress levels have gotten out of control, take some of these suggestions to heart and begin making positive changes for yourself. Your telomeres (and ultimately your health) will thank you!
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-  Telomeres and Telomerase
-  Accelerated Telomere Shortening in Response to Life Stress
-  Accelerated Telomere Erosion Is Associated with a Declining Immune Function of Caregivers of Alzheimer’s Disease Patients
-  Dynamics of Telomerase Activity in Response to Acute Psychological Stress
-  Pessimism Correlates with Leukocyte Telomere Shortness and Elevated Interleukin-6 in Post-menopausal Women
-  Association of Dimensional Psychological Health Measures with Telomere Length in Male War Veterans
-  Reduced Telomerase Activity in Human T Lymphocytes Exposed to Cortisol
-  Blackburn, E., Epel, E. (2017). The Telomere Effect, New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing
-  A Pilot Study of Yogic Meditation for Family Dementia Caregivers with Depressive Symptoms: Effects on Mental Health, Cognition, and Telomerase Activity
-  Intensive Meditation Training, Immune Cell Telomerase Activity, and Psychological Mediators
-  The Power of Exercise: Buffering the Effect of Chronic Stress on Telomere Length
-  Obesity, Cigarette Smoking, and Telomere Length in Women
-  Marital Disruption is Associated with Shorter Salivary Telomere Length in a Probability Sample of Older Adults
The consequences of stress impact the body in many ways.
However the perception of stress is subjective due to the psychological makeup of each person.
Telomeres, the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes, play a pivotal role in how young you will look and feel.
Telomere researcher Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn describes telomeres as the part of our DNA that keeps genetic material from unraveling, rather like the protective plastic tips on the end of a shoelace.
Your attitude impacts your telomeres. When telomeres are healthy and well maintained, cells are renewing, health is promoted, and you’ll feel young and lively.
There are many things you can do to promote good mental health. Adopting a be-here-now attitude and exercising are just some ways to relieve yourself of mental stress.
Studies also demonstrate that a healthy lifestyle, good attitude, and stress avoidance can lengthen telomeres and keep them well maintained.