Psychological Stress and Aging

Anti-aging skin care products are now ubiquitous, and there is some evidence suggesting that ingredients such as vitamin C, derivatives of vitamin A, green tea, and alpha hydroxy acids are effective in reducing wrinkles and increasing elasticity of the skin. However, these anti-aging creams aren’t the only means of delaying or concealing the effects of aging. Telomeres, which are non-coding single-strands of DNA that protect the ends of chromosomes so that important genetic information is not lost, is related to aging. Each time a cell replicates, its telomeres shortens. Once its telomeres become too short, a cell no longer divides. Since a cell can only replicate a finite number of times and telomeres shorten with each replication, telomere length indicates the cell's age and how many more times it can replicate.  The shorter the length of telomeres, the older the cell is. The enzyme telomerase counteracts this process of biological aging by lengthening telomeres. Thus, the more telomerase activity in a cell, the younger the cell is.

According to a study conducted by University of California, San Francisco researchers, psychological stress may accelerate biological aging. Participants of this study included mothers of a healthy child and mothers caring for a chronically ill child. Mothers caring for an ill child were characterized as objectively stressed. All mothers were asked about how stressed they were in the past month to assess subjective stress. They also provided blood samples to measure telomeres and telomerase activity.

Results indicated that the perception of stress was related to telomere length. Mothers who reported experiencing more stress had shorter telomeres regardless of whether they were caring for an ill child. Interestingly, the length of exposure to objective stress was related to greater biological aging as well. The longer the mothers had been caring for a terminally ill child, the shorter the length of their telomeres and the less telomerase activity they had.

These findings suggest that how stressed out you feel and how long you’re exposed to stress may increase the aging process. So although investing in an anti-aging skin care regimen might fight the effects of aging, it won’t ensure that you’ll look 30 when you’re 40, especially if you’re perpetually stressed out. Plus, these products only treat the manifestations of biological aging. It turns out that finding ways to reduce stress may actually be a more effective way to prevent aging since doing so gets at the biological source, and not just the noticeable effects, of aging.