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Stanford Medicine

Aging, Mental Health, Research

Study suggests anticipation of stress may accelerate cellular aging

Previous studies have shown that stress can contribute to a range of health conditions, from the common cold to heart disease. Now new research from UC San Francisco suggests that the mere anticipation of a stressful situation may increase a person’s risk for age-related diseases.

In the study, researchers examined how major forms of stress in individuals’ lives can influence how they respond to more minor forms of stress and how this psychological response impacts neurobiology and cellular health. To do so, they informed 50 women, about half of which were caregivers for a relative with dementia (and who, presumably, deal with daily stress), that they would be asked to perform public speaking or math tasks. The researchers then assessed participants’ cellular age by measuring the women’s telomeres, the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes. Short telomeres index older cellular age and are associated with increased risk for a various chronic diseases of aging such as cancer, heart disease and stroke.

According to a university release:

…The psychologists found that those most threatened by the anticipation of stressful tasks in the laboratory and through public speaking and solving math problems, looked older at the cellular level.

The researchers also found evidence that caregivers anticipated more threat than non-caregivers when told that they would be asked to perform the same public speaking and math tasks. This tendency to anticipate more threat put them at increased risk for short telomeres. Based on that, the researchers propose that higher levels of anticipated threat in daily life may promote cellular aging in chronically stressed individuals.

Although the findings are preliminary, researchers say the study results are a significant step forward in their goal of understanding how psychological stress promotes biological aging and developing interventions to reduce the risk for disease in chronically stressed individuals.

The research is slated to appear in the May issue of Brain, Behavior and Immunity.

Previously: Workplace stress and how it influences healthHow work stress affects wellness, health-care costsRobert Sapolsky discusses stress physiologyCan stress increase risk of neurodegenerative diseases?No surprise here: Anger and stress are bad for your healthRobert Sapolsky on stress and your health and New year, new (less stressed) you
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