“Put a ‘stop-loss’ order on your worries. Decide just how much anxiety a thing may be worth—and refuse to give it any more.”
This timeless advice given from Dale Carnegie is not just good for your peace of mind; new research suggests it could help you age gracefully.
Previously, researchers at the University of California at San Francisco discovered that too much daily stress could speed up aging at the level of telomeres, those protective caps on chromosomes. Now, these same investigators have dug deeper into how anticipation of stress—in other words, worry, panic, or anxiety—affects telomeres in women.
The researchers, led by Nobel laureate molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph.D.,* and psychologist Elissa Epel, Ph.D., found that women who responded to a “stressor” such as public speaking or solving a math problem with higher levels of perceived threat had significantly shorter telomeres in their white blood cells (leukocytes) in comparison to women who anticipated less of a perceived threat.
The study, to be published in the May issue of the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, evaluated telomere length and anticipation of stressful situations in 50 women, about half of whom suffer from chronic stress as caretakers for relatives with dementia. The results showed that women serving as caregivers felt more threat than the non-caregivers when asked to perform public speaking and solve math problems.
The study suggests people who are exposed to chronic stress are more likely to see small stressors as more threatening, such as losing keys, leading a meeting at work, or getting stuck in traffic. In addition, their greater perceived threat to constant stress can increase their risk for shorter telomeres.
“Psychological stress exposure leads to exaggerated threat sensitivity, which drives more frequent and prolonged threat perception in daily life, which in turn promotes activation of the biological stress responses that can drive telomere shortening,” the researchers wrote.
The scientists explain that a better understanding of how stress promotes biological aging, or telomere shortening, could lead to improved stress management methods for those with chronic stress and help to reduce the compounding effects of perceived stress.
A few tried-and true stress reduction techniques include meditation, exercise, getting adequate sleep, and supplementation with adaptogens. These can also be complemented by healthy diet and lifestyle behaviors that provide greatest support for telomeres.
To age gracefully without worry, however, the best advice may be from Carnegie: “If you have a worry problem, do these three things: 1. Ask yourself: ‘What is the worst that can possibly happen?’ 2. Prepare to accept it if you have to. 3. Then calmly proceed to improve on the worst.”
Reference: O’Donovan A, Tomiyama AJ, Lin J et al. Stress appraisals and cellular aging: A key role for anticipatory threat in the relationship between psychological stress and telomere length. Brain Behav Immun 2012.
*Dr. Blackburn and her colleagues Carol Greider, Ph.D., and Jack Szostak, Ph.D., received the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for “the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.”
Editor’s Note: To learn more about the work of Dr. Blackburn and Dr. Epel on how stress affects telomeres, watch this 6-minute video clip on YouTube from Stress: Portrait of a Killer, a National Geographic special.