Healthy Living in Stressful Times May Reduce Aging Effects

A woman looks stressed at work, while colleagues sit in the background.
(Image credit: Stressed woman via Shutterstock)

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle during troubling times may reduce some of the negative effects of stress on the body, and the accelerated aging that can come with it, researchers say.

In a new study of 239 women, ages 50 to 65, researchers examined whether having a healthy diet, exercising and sleeping well could reduce the effects of stress and aging at the cellular level. The study participants reported their health and behaviors, as well as whether any major stressful events such as losing a job or going through a divorce, that occurred during the yearlong study.

To look at the effect of stress on cells, the researcher measured the length of cell structures called telomeres, which are protective "caps" at the end of chromosomes. Telomeres shorten slightly each time cells divide, and their length is thought to be an index of a cell's aging. The researchers took blood samples from the participants, once at the beginning of the study and again a year later, to measure the changes in the white blood cell's telomeres.  

The results showed that major stressful events were linked with a shortening of telomeres. However, healthy behaviors had a mitigating effect — women who engaged in more healthful behaviors experienced a smaller decline in telomere length for every major stressful event that occurred during the year. [8 Tips for Healthy Aging]

But women who exercised less, ate poorly and slept less had more telomere shortening, even though they had similar levels of stress, according to the study, published today (July 29) in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

The findings 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," study researcher Eli Puterman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, said in a statement.

"It's very important that we promote healthy living, especially under circumstances of typical experiences of life stressors like death, caregiving and job loss," Puterman said.

The findings are in line with those of previous studies that have found links between the pace of telomere shortening and people's lifestyles and mental health. Still, the researchers noted that how a person ages is a result of a complex interplay between genetics, behaviors and stressors over their life span. 

Generally, one year is thought to be a short period of time for telomeres to show much change in length, the researchers said. As expected, they found telomere length was generally stable over the study period, and in the majority of women, their telomeres remained within 5 percent of their original telomere length. However, the researchers were still able to find changes linked to stressors and lifestyle behaviors over the previous year, they wrote in their study.

Other researchers on the study were Jue Lin, Elissa Epel and Elizabeth Blackburn, who are co-founders of Telome Health, a company that works in telomere biology. Blackburn and two other U.S. scientists pioneered research on telomere function in cell aging, and discovered the enzyme that builds telomeres, which earned them the 2009 Nobel Prize in medicine.

"These new results are exciting yet observational at this point," Blackburn said. "They do provide the impetus to move forward with interventions to modify lifestyle in those experiencing a lot of stress, to test whether telomere attrition can truly be slowed."

Email Bahar Gholipour. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Originally published on Live Science.

Bahar Gholipour
Staff Writer
Bahar Gholipour is a staff reporter for Live Science covering neuroscience, odd medical cases and all things health. She holds a Master of Science degree in neuroscience from the École Normale Supérieure (ENS) in Paris, and has done graduate-level work in science journalism at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. She has worked as a research assistant at the Laboratoire de Neurosciences Cognitives at ENS.