The researchers found that chronic stress appears to accelerate this process. The longer a woman had been caring for a sick child, the shorter her telomeres, the lower her levels of telomerase and the higher her levels of "oxidative stress." Oxidative stress is a process in which "free radicals" in the body damage DNA, including telomeres.
A key factor appears to be people's perception of how much stress they are under, the researchers found. The greater a woman's perception of her stress in the study, the worse she scored on all these factors. Compared with women with the lowest levels of perceived stress, women with the highest perceived stress had telomeres equivalent to someone 10 years older, the researchers found.
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Graphic: Stress and Telomeres
"The shorter the telomeres, the higher the perceived stress and the lower the telomerase," Blackburn said. "It was just the same with oxidative stress -- the worse the perceived psychological stress, the greater the oxidative stress. It all went in the same direction."
The researchers studied telomeres and telomerase in white blood cells taken from blood samples. Prematurely aged white blood cells alone could make people more prone to illness because white blood cells are a key part of the immune system. But the findings probably hold true for other types of cells as well, Epel said, and the researchers now plan to do studies to confirm that.
It is unclear exactly how stress might affect telomeres and telomerase levels, but it could be that chronically elevated levels of stress hormones such as cortisol damage the telomeres and other genes in the body and lower telomerase levels, inhibiting the cells' ability to respond.
"That's the obvious hypothesis that jumps out," Blackburn said.
Whatever the mechanism, the findings indicate that doctors could monitor telomere length and telomerase levels for signs that people under chronic stress are suffering adverse effects, Epel said.
"Telomere length and telomerase may be used as a way to monitor health. Very low telomerase or very short telomeres might serve as a kind of red flag," Epel said.
If someone appears headed for trouble, doctors could recommend meditation, yoga or other stress-reduction techniques, she said.
"The findings emphasize the importance of managing life stress, to take it seriously if one feels stressed, to give your body a break, and make life changes that promote well-being," Epel said.