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Last updated on April 18, 2014 at 11:09 EDT

Study: Stress Causes Immune Cells to Age

November 30, 2004

WASHINGTON — The immune cells of women under extreme mental stress age faster than those in women not facing such pressure, a new study reports.

While previous reports have linked physical effects with stress, the new analysis helps pinpoint an important focus for these problems.

The study focused on the telomeres in the chromosomes of particular immune cells of 58 women between the ages of 20 and 50. Telomeres cap the ends of chromosomes and shorten as cells reproduce, a measure of age. When they reach a minimum level the cells can no longer reproduce.

The report, published in Monday’s issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the telomeres in the cells of women under stress had undergone the equivalent of 10 years of additional aging, compared to women living more normal lives.

“Chronic stress appears to have the potential to shorten the life of cells, at least immune cells,” lead author Elissa Epel of the University of California at San Francisco said in a statement.

“The results were striking,” added co-author Elizabeth Blackburn, also of UCSF.

The researchers studied 58 women, 19 of whom were mothers of healthy children and 39 who were tending chronically ill children. They reported that “the exact mechanism that connect the mind and the cell are unknown.”

The researchers said they will now begin work to see if other types of cells are affected by stress.

Robert M. Sapolsky of Stanford University, who was not part of the research team, called the report “a provocative finding in the best sense of the word.”

In a commentary accompanying the report, Sapolsky said the goal now will be to determine how stress is experienced at the physical level.

The research was funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Hellman Family Fund, the University of California at San Francisco, National Institute of Mental Health, National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression, Steven and Michele Kirsch Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Burroughs Wellcome Fund and the Dana Foundation.

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Proceedings of the National Institutes of Health