(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON – As stressed-out students careen toward final exams and another frantic holiday shopping season, science has found something new for them to worry about: Worrying too much.
In the first findings linking stress and biological age, researchers found that severe emotional stress may speed up the aging of cells at the genetic level, according to a report in the New York Times last week.
Blood cells from women who had spent many years caring for a disabled child were, genetically, about a decade older than those from peers who had much less caretaking experience, according to the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
But the findings may also apply to college students. While the study focused on stress of intensities caused “by divorce, the loss of a job, or caring for an ill child or parent,” academic demands are just another burden on students whose personal lives are constantly growing more complex.
But will too many all-nighters leave graduates gray-haired and wrinkly?
“I think it’s more metaphorical,” said Megan Gerrard, a George Washington University sophomore. “Compare students who go to college to those who don’t. It’s kind of ridiculous.”
Medical experts doubt the study’s findings will have tangible effects on the lives of students.
“I don’t think there is too much relevance to students,” said Dr. Susan Haney, Clinical Program Coordinator for George Washington University’s student health service. “Students are very young, so I don’t think the study’s findings really apply to them.”
Gerrard said the difficult circumstances of the mothers studied cannot apply to many student lives.
“Student stress is more intense because it’s all day, every day for four years, but it’s more about the long-term effects of what we do,” Gerrard said. “Adults have to put food on the table every night.”
“Our stresses are a luxury because going to college is a luxury,” she said.
But the aging effects of stress are not always visible ones, according to researchers who are still struggling to understand the science behind the aging properties of stress. The scientists focused on a piece of DNA, the telomere, at the end of each cell’s chromosomes. Each time a cell divides and duplicates itself, the telomere shrinks, “aging” the cell. Cells naturally reproduce throughout life to grow, heal and fight disease. A chemical, telomerase, partly repairs the telomere at each division, but the telomere eventually shrinks to a point where the cell cannot replicate.
Individual ability to cope with stress may indirectly affect the telomere through a variable such as telomerase production, the study concluded. But the cause is still unknown.
“All of these factors intertwine to make up how a person handles stress,” Dr. Ronald Glaser, director of Ohio State University’s Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research, told the New York Times. With his wife, Dr. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, Glasier studied the impact of stress on immune function. “We now have evidence, from a broad range of fields, from studies of wound healing, of inflammation, of vaccines, and now of cell age that really make the case” that stress can cause real harm.
The research team plans to examine the abilities of relaxation techniques ranging from yoga to “cognitive therapy” to reduce stress-based genetic aging.
But the telomere study must be replicated to be considered fully valid, according to experts. Scientists have also yet to prove that stress can significantly shorten life. And it is far from clear exactly how telomeres shorten before their time.
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