"Stress Kills." That was on a bumper sticker I saw years ago. Well, guess what? A new study at the University of California in San Francisco (UCSF) shows just that. Stress speeds the aging process of your body at the most basic, cellular level to weaken your immune system and increase your risk for cardiovascular disease.
TEN YEARS OF PREMATURE AGING
Researchers at UCSF looked at 58 women, 19 of whom were mothers of healthy children and 39 who were "caregiving mothers" of chronically ill children. Using a standardized 10-item questionnaire, the women assessed both their perceived stress and objective measures of stress. According to study coauthor Elissa S. Epel, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at UCSF, she and her colleagues found that the cells of women who were under the highest levels of stress experienced at least 10 additional years of premature aging compared with the cells of low-stress women. A prominent sign of premature cellular aging was shorter telomere length. These DNA-protein complexes (in chemistry, a complex is composed of two or more units) cap the ends of cellular chromosomes and promote chromosomal stability. When telomeres grow too short, they can no longer reproduce. While telomere performance normally declines as we age, stress can dramatically accelerate the process. According to Dr. Epel, this finding has implications for how stress may promote an earlier onset of age-related diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, arthritis, diabetes and cancer, at the cellular level.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
In the study, being a caregiver was not as important as how stressed one felt, observes Dr. Epel. She believes that good coping skills are probably crucial in buffering the effects of chronic stress and keeping one's perceived stress levels low. Further clinical trials are needed to determine whether interventions to lower perceived stress can slow the rate of telomere shortening, says Dr. Epel. In the meantime, there are many steps you can take to effectively manage the stress in your own life. Among Dr. Epel's stress control strategies are...
*Follow a healthy lifestyle, with regular exercise, a balanced diet and sufficient sleep.
*Engage in activities (including those that involve both exercise and relaxation) to counter physiological stress.
*Build a support network.
*Practice good time management. Reduce the things that clutter your life and add stress, and make time and room for more salutary activities.