(RxWiki News) Many people coping with stressful life situations like the loss of a loved one can forget to take care of themselves. But healthy eating, regular exercise and a good night’s sleep may be key to offsetting the physical toll stress can take.
In a recent study, researchers in California found that stress could speed up aging at the genetic level — and healthy living could slow it down.
"Focus on healthy living when faced with stress."
The research was conducted by Eli Puterman, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California - San Francisco, and colleagues.
The research focused on telomeres, which are genetic structures made of DNA and proteins that affect how quickly cells age. As telomeres get shorter, cells age and die more quickly.
Dr. Puterman and team set out to analyze whether stressful situations prompted telomeres to become shorter and whether healthy living prevented that.
The study authors recruited 239 postmenopausal, non-smoking women and looked at their exercise levels, diets and sleep quality. During the study period, the patients reported stressful events and healthy behaviors.
The women provided blood samples at the start and end of the one-year study period. The study authors used the blood to measure the patients' telomeres.
The average change in telomere length was less than 1 percent. About 68 percent of participants ended the one-year period with telomere length within 5 percent of baseline measurements.
Stressful events reported included the death of a family member, being a primary caregiver, relationship difficulties, becoming unemployed, sexual harassment and the loss of a house.
Dr. Puterman and colleagues found that major stressors predicted telomere shortening. Specifically, for every major event reported, the study authors observed an average loss of 34.7 base pairs.
The researchers also found an even higher rate of stress-related telomere decline in women who engaged in fewer healthy behaviors.
Similarly, women who maintained active lifestyles, healthy diets and good sleep habits were protected from telomere shortening when exposed to stressors, according to the study.
"This is the first study that supports the idea, at least observationally, that stressful events can accelerate immune cell aging in adults, even in the short period of one year," Dr. Puterman said in a press release. "Exciting, though, is that these results further suggest that keeping active, and eating and sleeping well during periods of high stress are particularly important to attenuate the accelerated aging of our immune cells.”
The paper was published online July 28 in peer-reviewed journal Molecular Psychiatry.
The Baumann Foundation and the Barney & Barbro Foundation provided funding for the research.
Dr. Puterman was supported by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Two co-authors disclosed that they co-founded a private company focused on diagnostic telomere measurement.