Research that Changed Research: Stress and Telomere Length

Take a look at the United States Presidents (See photos). From the start of their term to the end, their appearances change dramatically. This is a perfect demonstration of how in just 4 to 8 years, chronic stress contributes to years of aging on the skin, gray hairs, drooping eyes, wrinkles, and even balding spots. It is obvious that being the President of the United States is not an easy job. But, why does psychological stress cause premature aging and health issues? Researchers discovered three possible ways of cell aging: immune cell function or distribution, oxidative stress, or telomerase activity.

Dr. Elissa S. Epel and her research team hypothesized that stress gets “under the skin” through the modulation of the rate of cellular aging. Evidence showed that long-term stress is significantly associated with increased oxidative stress, reduction in telomerase activity, and shorten telomere length. Therefore, to test their hypothesis, 58 premenopausal mothers were examined and separated into two categories: the control mothers (biological mothers of a healthy child) or caregiving mothers (biological mothers of a chronically ill child). The intention of the study was to indicate the importance of perceived stress of each mother and measure the objective stress. The average length and activity of the telomeres were measured quantitatively in the peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs).

The following passage is from the original article:

“It is also notable that, in women, self-reported distress has been related to greater oxidative DNA damage (8-OH-dG) (12). Oxidative stress shortens telomeres in cells cultured in vitro (10). Our findings that perceived and chronic stress correlated with higher oxidative stress and shorter telomere length demonstrate this relationship cross-sectionally for the first time in vivo. Lastly, if the observed lowered telomerase activity represents chronic levels, it too could have contributed to the shortened telomeres in PBMCs.”

Dr. Epel’s research on the impact of psychological stress on telomere length opened the door to new interventions that may help lower perceived stress to help decrease the rate of telomere shortening. The prevention of telomere shortening is important in cell senescence and longevity, and therefore, helps to increase mortality rates and deterrence of diseases. Dr. Epel’s research findings reintroduce the importance of stress and its detrimental effects on health and guide DiSH lab’s own stress-related studies.