Women Expecting Stressful Events See Cellular Aging Accelerate
Short telomeres in cellular aging associated with risk for chronic diseases - see second report below on several UCSF
studies of stress damage on telomeres and repair by exercise
Feb. 27, 2012 - The ability to anticipate future events allows us to plan and exert control over our lives, but it may
also contribute to stress-related increased risk for the diseases of aging, according to a study by UCSF researchers.
In a study of 50 women, about half of them caring for relatives with dementia, the psychologists found that those most
threatened by the anticipation of stressful tasks in the laboratory and through public speaking and solving math problems, looked older at the
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The researchers assessed cellular age by measuring telomeres, which are the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes.
Short telomeres index older cellular age and are associated with increased risk for a host of chronic diseases of aging, including cancer,
heart disease and stroke.
“We are getting closer to understanding how chronic stress translates into the present moment,” said
Elissa Epel, PhD, an associate professor in the UCSF Department of Psychiatry and
a lead investigator on the study.
“As stress researchers, we try to examine the psychological process of how people respond to a stressful event and how
that impacts their neurobiology and cellular health. And we’re making some strides in that.”
The researchers also found evidence that caregivers anticipated more threat than non-caregivers when told that they would
be asked to perform the same public speaking and math tasks.
This tendency to anticipate more threat put them at increased risk for short telomeres. Based on that, the researchers
propose that higher levels of anticipated threat in daily life may promote cellular aging in chronically stressed individuals.
“How you respond to a brief stressful experience in the laboratory may reveal a lot about how you respond to stressful
experiences in your daily life,” said
Aoife O’Donovan, PhD, a Society in Science: Branco Weiss Fellow at UCSF and the
study’s lead author.
“Our findings are preliminary for now, but they suggest that the major forms of stress in your life may influence how
your respond to more minor forms of stress, such as losing your keys, getting stuck in traffic or leading a meeting at work.
“Our goal is to gain better understanding of how psychological stress promotes biological aging so that we can design
targeted interventions that reduce risk for disease in stressed individuals. We now have preliminary evidence that higher anticipatory threat
perception may be one such mechanism.”
Research on telomeres, and the enzyme that makes them, was pioneered by three Americans, including UCSF molecular
biologist and co-author on this manuscript
Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, who co-discovered the telomerase enzyme in 1985. The
scientists received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 for this work.
The research related to anticipation was funded by grants from the Division of Behavioral and Social Research at the
National Institute of Aging/National Institutes of Health and Bernard and Barbro Foundation as well as by a Society in Science: Branco Weiss
UCSF is a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level
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Earlier UCSF Research Found Stress Means Shorter Telomeres; Exercise May Aging Prevent Damage
Series of studies have focused on senior women ages 50 to 65
In 2011, UCSF scientists reported several studies showing that psychological stress leads to shorter telomeres – the
protective caps on the ends of chromosomes that are a measure of cell age and, thus, health. The findings also suggest that exercise may
prevent this damage.
The team focused on three groups: post-menopausal women who were the primary caregivers for a family member with
dementia; young to middle-aged adults with post-traumatic stress disorder; and healthy, non-smoking women ages 50 to 65 years.
They examined telomeres in leukocytes, or white blood cells, of the
immune system, which defends the body against both infectious agents and cell
“Our findings suggest that traumatic and chronic stressful life events are associated with shortening of telomeres in
cells of the immune system, but that physical activity may moderate this impact,” said co-author Jue Lin, PhD, associate research biochemist
in the laboratory of senior author and Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, professor of biochemistry and biophysics at UCSF.
Telomeres are tiny units of DNA at the ends of chromosomes that protect and stabilize chromosomes. Every time a cell
divides, some telomeres drop off. After a certain number of cell divisions, which varies depending on the cell type, the telomeres reach a
critical length and the cell typically dies. Sometimes, however, the cells cease to divide and are subjected to genomic instability, promoting
inflammation in the body.
Scientists have known for more than a decade that the length of telomeres in immune system cells is a marker of cell
aging. In recent years, they have discovered that shorter telomeres are associated with a broad range of aging-related diseases and are
predictive of incidence and poor prognosis of cardiovascular disease and a variety of cancers.
A 2004 study led by Blackburn and UCSF colleague Elissa Epel, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry, suggested that
psychological stress may impact the length of telomeres in immune system cells. They reported that the perception of psychological stress in
female caregivers of chronically sick children was related to shorter telomeres in lymphocytes, key cells of the immune system. This offered
the first evidence that telomere maintenance potentially mediates the well documented detrimental effects of stress on health. (Proceedings of
the National Academy of Science, Nov. 29, 2004)
A more recent study, led by Epel, followed for two years 63 healthy postmenopausal women who were the primary caregivers
for a family member with dementia. In an earlier analysis of 36 of these women, pessimism was associated with high levels of a
pro-inflammatory protein often associated with aging and disease states, and with short telomeres.
In a recent and separate analysis of the full group of women, an increase in perceived stress was related to an increase
in the odds of having short telomeres only in the non-exercising women. Among those who exercised, perceived stress was unrelated to telomere
length. In the current analysis of the larger group, it was revealed that an increase in perceived stress over the course of one year was
associated with a decrease in telomere length during that time.
A second study, led by Aoife O'Donovan, PhD, and Thomas Neylan, MD, UCSF professor of psychiatry at the San Francisco VA
Medical Center, examined 43 people ages 20 to 50 with chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. They were compared to 47 age- and sex-matched
individuals without PTSD.The results showed a relationship between PTSD and short telomere length. But even more interesting, said Lin, the
finding showed that, in these adults, exposure to childhood trauma – at or before age 14 – also was associated with telomere shortening and
accounted for the link between PTSD and telomeres.
A third study, led by Eli Puterman, PhD, analyzed data from 251 healthy, non-smoking women ages 50-65 of varying activity
levels. The findings showed that non-exercising women with histories of childhood abuse had shorter telomeres than those with no histories of
abuse. But, in those women who exercised regularly, there was no link between childhood abuse and telomere length, after controlling for body
mass index, income, education and age.
“We saw a relationship between childhood trauma and short telomere length but the relationship seems to go away in people
who exercise vigorously at least three times a week,” Lin said.
Other co-authors of the poster are Jeff Krauss, Alanie Lazaro, Wanda Truong and Joshua Cheon, all of UCSF.
The studies were funded by National Institute of Aging, National Institute of Mental Health, The Barney and Barbro Fund
and The Baumann Foundation.