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How does stress affect DNA?

By the late ’90s, many researchers were convinced that stress leads to chronic problems like heart disease, impaired immunity, memory loss, and premature aging, but there was no absolute proof. Then, in November 2004, a study of moms changed everything.

A team of scientists, led by researchers from the University of California San Francisco, tracked fifty-eight mothers, aged twenty to fifty. Almost forty of them were caregivers -- mothers with a chronically ill child. The rest (the controls) had healthy children. Predictably, the caregivers reported more stress than the controls, and the longer they had been caring for a sick child, the greater their stress.

What made this study a landmark was that scientists actually pinpointed the damage stress does to DNA, the genetic material in every one of our cells. The tips of DNA strands are protected by little shields called telomeres (like plastic tips at the end of shoelaces). The more stress a mom had, the shorter her telomeres were. Scientists actually pinpointed the damage stress does to DNA, the genetic material in every one of our cells. Telomeres, the UCSF group discovered, turn out to be a kind of clock for gauging how old a cell is. Each time a cell divides, the telomere tips shrink a bit. A repair enzyme quickly fixes them, but only so many repairs can be done.

And the more stress a person is under, the less well the repairs work. When the DNA is damaged beyond repair, the cell can no longer divide. End of story. The scientists did some fancy calculations and finally wound up with a way to measure the aging effects of stress. The telomeres of women with the greatest stress were 10 years older than those of the women with the least stress. The research is ongoing, and here’s the upside: The UCSF team is now trying to figure out if it’s possible to counter the effects of stress on telomeres with meditation, therapy, yoga, or some other technique.

From The Mind-Beauty Connection: 9 Days to Less Stress, Gorgeous Skin, and a Whole New You by Amy Wechsler.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.