Several studies have shown that the chronic stress or a stress experienced over a prolonged period of time can contribute to long-term problems for heart and blood vessels. The consistent and ongoing increase in heart rate, and the elevated levels of stress hormones and blood pressure can make body lethargic and exhausted.
This effect of stress on our health has been reiterated in many studies and we are quite familiar with it. The new studies on stress shows social isolation, untreated depression, prolong anxiety attacks and long-term unemployment can speed-up the ageing process by shortening the length of each DNA strand called telomeres.
Every human cell has 46 chromosomes and each chromosome is like a DNA library with two protective caps on the end known as telomeres. As telomeres become shorter, their structural integrity weakens, which causes cells to age faster and die younger. Shorter telomeres have a negative effect on our health.
Telomere shortening is the main cause of age-related break down of our cells. When telomeres get too short, our cells can no longer reproduce, which causes our tissues to degenerate and eventually die.
Telomere length is an indicator of both cellular and biological ageing. Stressful life experiences in childhood and adulthood have previously been associated to accelerated telomere shortening. Shortened telomeres have been related with chronic illness and premature death in former studies.
Previous studies in humans and in rodents have shown dynamic genetic changes can be seen in response to physical stimuli such stress, conflicts, exercise and diet. It can occur for better or worse within just a few hours. A plethora of psychology posts is available to confirm the power of lifestyle choices to reduce disease, improve well-being, and increase longevity. A pilot study released in September 2013 presented for the first time that changes in diet, exercise, social support and stress management may result in longer telomeres. This explains that sedentary lifestyle, poor diet habits and isolation may lead to shortening of our telomeres making people prone to diseases typically associated with advanced age such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and osteoporosis.
Another interesting study conducted in July 2012 from Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) found that chronic phobic anxiety and depression shortened telomere length in middle-aged and older women. The study suggests that untreated psychological illness is a possible risk factor for
accelerated ageing. The good news is that our telomeres and our genes are not necessarily our destiny. People often think that they have bad genes and there’s nothing they can do about it.
But recent studies indicate that telomeres may lengthen with changes in our lifestyle. Simple lifestyle choices can change your destiny and keep you young. Start adopting few changes like:
Eat more plant-based diet (vegetable, high in fruits, and unrefined grains, low in fat and refined carbohydrates)
Include moderate exercise (walking 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week)
Adopt stress reduction activities (mindful based cognitivetherapy, breathing meditation and yoga.)
Expand social support network(family, friends, and sense of community).
Make small changes in your daily routine that include social connectivity, stress reduction, healthier diet and physical activity.
We have the power to slow down the ageing process at a cellular level and to stay alive longer.
Encourage your family and friends to incorporate these lifestyle choices into their daily routines.
(Dr Nishat Sham is a health psychologist based in Oman)