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From Spirituality & Health magazine (May/June 2005):



Aging: Why That Cruise or Spa Vacation Really Can Be Gene Therapy



Psychological stress not only makes you feel older, it ages you on a cellular level. That’s according to a University of California, San Francisco, study of 58 women, ages 20-50, all of whom were biological mothers either of a chronically ill child (39 women, so-called "caregivers") or a healthy child (19 women, or "controls"). Both the caregivers and controls were given a standardized questionnaire assessing their level of perceived stress during the previous month as well as their objective stress (caregiver status, and duration of caregiving stress). The researchers also measured three biological factors in their subjects’ immune system cells.

As expected, most women who cared for a chronically ill child reported that they were more stressed than women in the control group. The study found that, after controlling for the age of the women, those with more years of caregiving had shorter telomeres — DNA protein complexes that wear away as cells divide until the aged cells stop dividing — than the lowest-stress group. Years of caregiving also correlated with diminished telomerase, an enzyme that protects telomeres, and higher oxidative stress, which causes DNA damage in cells.

Across both groups, the perception of stress also proved important. The telomeres of women with the highest perceived psychological stress had "aged" approximately 10 years more than those of the women in their group who had the lowest perception of being stressed.

The research team now wants to carry out clinical trials to see if stress reduction interventions, such as meditation, yoga, or cognitive-behavioral therapy, would increase telomerase activity and telomere length, or at least slow the rate of telomere shortening in individuals. (The study findings were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 101, No. 41.)

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