Does stress cause premature DNA aging? Largest study to date investigates

February 19, 2016
Human chromosomes (grey) capped by telomeres (white). Credit: PD-NASA; PD-USGOV-NASA

Telomeres are "caps" on the ends of chromosomes that protect DNA from damage. As we age, telomeres gradually shorten, compromising their protective role. But individuals vary greatly in their telomere length, and telomeres may be a potent indicator of an individual's biological age. Short telomeres are associated with heart disease, metabolic syndrome, neural degeneration, and other chronic diseases.

We know telomere length is related to physical disease, but could it also be related to what's going on in our minds? Lab studies using mice have found that the stress hormone catecholamine damages chromosomes, so an increasingly popular idea is that stress could also shorten telomeres in humans. A definitive new meta-analysis on the topic, the largest analysis to date, used data from 22 earlier studies and over 8,700 participants to see if the hypothesis holds up. After statistically synthesizing the data, the researchers found a surprisingly small correlation between stress and telomere length (r = -0.06). The effect was similar for men and women.

The studies included in the meta-analysis typically measured participants' stress by asking questions about how they felt over the past month, using questions like, "In the last month, how often have you felt that you were unable to control the important things in your life?" It's possible that long-term stress could have more substantial effects. So far, there have been very few studies measuring stress repeatedly over years or decades, rather than months.

Because the new study used data from all previously published research on this topic, the data reflected a diverse range of demographics. Some studies mostly enrolled high-income, predominantly white subjects, others specifically recruited subjects facing major adversity (such as domestic abuse, or the need to care for an chronically ill child), and others contained subjects with physical conditions (such as mastocytosis, a serious immune disorder). It is possible that "stress" could be especially impactful for individuals facing chronic adversity. For these people, reporting stress in the short term might reflect a long-term battle, rather than a brief encounter with life's daily tribulations. So, the researchers investigated whether the relationship between stress and depended on these characteristics. The relationship was barely stronger in studies with highly stressed subjects (r = -0.10), and the difference was not statistically significant.

Ultimately, the new study calls into question the increasingly popular idea that stress damages telomeres. But the case is far from closed, and this study also raises many new questions, such as whether long-term might be more strongly related to shortened telomeres.

Explore further: For older men, short telomeres can be a sign of chronic stress

More information: Maya B. Mathur et al. Perceived stress and telomere length: A systematic review, meta-analysis, and methodologic considerations for advancing the field, Brain, Behavior, and Immunity (2016). DOI: 10.1016/j.bbi.2016.02.002

Related Stories

For older men, short telomeres can be a sign of chronic stress

March 11, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—Andrew Steptoe of University College London and his colleagues have found that telomere length can predict how long it takes older men to recover from stressful situations. Men with shorter telomeres have ...

Causal link between telomere shortening and Alzheimer's disease

October 13, 2015
In a newly published study, researchers at Karolinska Institutet show that the shortening of the telomeres – the caps at each end of the chromosomes in our cells – can be linked statistically to the active mechanism responsible ...

Researchers tease apart a pathway certain cancer cells use to replicate

January 28, 2016
A new "player" in the way certain aggressive cancer cells may reproduce has been identified. It is hoped that these findings may lead to the identification of new cancer targets and may ultimately lead to new therapeutics.

Does depression contribute to the aging process?

February 21, 2012
Stress has numerous detrimental effects on the human body. Many of these effects are acutely felt by the sufferer, but many more go 'unseen', one of which is shortening of telomere length.

Children with ADHD and their mothers may live less than average population

September 28, 2015
Psychiatric disorders like Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) impact family's emotions and social life. It is well known. What is new is that this condition also affects the DNA of patients and their parents. Brazilian ...

Recommended for you

Team finds link between backup immune defense, mutation seen in Crohn's disease

July 27, 2017
Genes that regulate a cellular recycling system called autophagy are commonly mutated in Crohn's disease patients, though the link between biological housekeeping and inflammatory bowel disease remained a mystery. Now, researchers ...

Study finds harmful protein on acid triggers a life-threatening disease

July 27, 2017
Using an array of modern biochemical and structural biology techniques, researchers from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) have begun to unravel the mystery of how acidity influences a small protein called serum ...

CRISPR sheds light on rare pediatric bone marrow failure syndrome

July 27, 2017
Using the gene editing technology CRISPR, scientists have shed light on a rare, sometimes fatal syndrome that causes children to gradually lose the ability to manufacture vital blood cells.

Post-stroke patients reach terra firma with new exosuit technology

July 26, 2017
Upright walking on two legs is a defining trait in humans, enabling them to move very efficiently throughout their environment. This can all change in the blink of an eye when a stroke occurs. In about 80% of patients post-stroke, ...

Molecular hitchhiker on human protein signals tumors to self-destruct

July 24, 2017
Powerful molecules can hitch rides on a plentiful human protein and signal tumors to self-destruct, a team of Vanderbilt University engineers found.

Researchers develop new method to generate human antibodies

July 24, 2017
An international team of scientists has developed a method to rapidly produce specific human antibodies in the laboratory. The technique, which will be described in a paper to be published July 24 in The Journal of Experimental ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.