When someone is very sad or under a lot of stress, they tend to look more haggard, even more aged. Stories abound about people who age quickly and die shortly after their spouse has passed away. Critics have noticed political leaders, dealing with stresses like war and national crisis, whose hair seems to have gone white overnight. Scientific studies now support that these reflections may be real.
A recent study, reported in the journal Biological Psychiatry, states that internal evidence suggests that people under chronic stress and depression tend to age more quickly. Researchers at Sweden’s Umea University studied the relationships between a body’s telomere lengths, depression, and chronic stress.
The Telling Signs of Telomeres
Telomeres are used to determine the aging of a body. Located on the ends of chromosomes, telomeres naturally shorten as the body ages. But over the years, emotional hardships also take a physical toll on the body. Researchers have determined that these sad and anxious emotions that feed stress and depression can accelerate the shortening of these telomeres.
In the study at Umea University, 91 patients diagnosed with depression were studied in comparison with 451 non-depressed patients. Both groups were given a dexamethasone suppression test to see how stress affected their bodies. The length of their telomeres from aging white blood cells and high cortisol levels varied between the groups. They found that the patients who suffered from depression and stress had shorter telomeres than the control group of patients.
The Role of Stress in Aging
The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis) helps our bodies regulate the stress hormone, cortisol. In individuals who suffer from depression and chronic stress, the HPA axis does not often function properly. As the body attempts to cope with excessive stress, the HPA axis malfunctions.
Dr. Mikael Wikgren, lead author of the Umea University study, explains that telomeres are extremely vulnerable to the harmful impacts of stress. Patients who had a very sensitive HPA axis also had greatly shortened telomere lengths.
Findings for the Future
Editor of Biological Psychiatry, Dr. John Krystal, sees this study as a step forward in finding insightful links between telomere length and stress-related illnesses. While the study suggests that cortisol levels contribute to the shortening of telomeres, Dr. Krystal believes that more studies need to be done on all the factors that contribute to the length of telomeres.
The body reacts holistically to stresses from the outside world. Depression is not just mental, but physical. As more studies are done about how the human body reacts internally to external stresses, treatment strategies can become holistically effective. Treatment for patients who suffer from depression and chronic stress not only helps the patient in the here and now, but also contributes to their healthy longevity.