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You may have heard of the link between stress and various health challenges such as cardiovascular disease and immunity.  However, there has been little research to show how stress actually gets “under the skin” and the mechanisms by which it influences aging.

Two researchers from the University of California, Elissa Epel, and Elizabeth Blackburn, have conducted research that shows that high levels of stress, both real and perceived, seems to influence the rate at which we age biologically at a cellular level.  The study suggests that stress impacts cell structure in a way that promotes cellular aging.  If you are interested in how this happens, read on….

Let’s talk about cellular structure first.  We know that the human body is made up of trillions of cells.  The nucleus of the cell contains our chromosomes which hold the DNA genetic information needed for cells to divide and remain healthy.  If you think of a chromosome as being in the shape of a shoelace, there is a special structure of DNA at the end of the lace that is called telomeric DNA and, as we age, it deteriorates and shortens, not unlike the deterioration of a shoelace at its ends.  In order for the cell to remain healthy, this telomeric DNA needs to stay intact.  The research suggests that stress increases the rate of telomeric DNA shortening which compromises the ability of a cell to divide and remain healthy.  Eventually the cell will no longer divide after there is sufficient shortening of the telomeric DNA.

One other interesting biological note.  Elizabeth Blackburn, one of the researchers mentioned above, won a Nobel Prize a few years ago for discovering an enzyme that that circulates in our blood that helps to add back this DNA to the end of the chromosome.  In other words, it repairs DNA structure.  The enzyme was named telomerase.  Interesting enough, the research showed that there was less of this enzyme present in individuals who were under high stress.

The implications of this research are potentially significant.  We may want to pay more attention to the stress in our lives and find ways to relate to it with greater intelligence and understanding.

If you are interested in reading the research paper, here is the link