Anxiety Makes You Age Faster

By Amir Khan on July 16, 2012 10:36 AM EDT

Telomere
Telomeres (pictured) are shorter in people who experience anxiety (Photo: Creative Commons)

People who are overly anxious may age faster than people who are not, according to a new study, published in the journal PLoS ONE.

Researchers studied telomeres -- caps on the end of chromosomes that shorten as a person grows older. Shorter telomeres are linked to early death and an increased risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes. They found that people with phobic anxiety, a common anxiety that causes them to have a fear of certain situations, such as crowds, had shorter telomeres.

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"Many people wonder about whether - and how - stress can make us age faster," Dr. Olivia Okereke, study author and psychiatrist at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, told MSNBC. "This study is notable for showing a connection between a common form of psychological stress - phobic anxiety - and a plausible mechanism for premature aging."

Researchers analyzed information from 5,243 women between the ages of 42 and 69 who took part in a questionnaire. Researchers gauged their anxiety levels by asking them questions such as "Do you have an unreasonable fear of being in enclosed spaces?" and "Do you feel panicky in crowds?" They found that people who scored high on the tests had shorter telomeres.

The findings held up even after the researchers adjusted for factors that could explain shorter telomeres, including smoking, body mass index, physical activity and the age of the father when the participant is born -- older fathers pass down longer telomeres.

Researchers did not take whether the participant experienced depression into account, which may have affected the results, according to the study.

Researchers stressed that the study shows a correlation between anxiety and shorter telomeres but did not prove a cause-and-effect between the two. They said it's possible that people with shorter telomeres are more prone to stress, and that more research is needed to confirm and better understand the findings.

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