Anxious ageing

Anxiety can be a difficult thing to live with. It can change your behaviour and there is plenty of evidence that it changes your body as well. Lots of health conditions result from long term anxiety including heart disease, immune problems, and digestive dysfunction. Any of these health conditions can have a negative effect on your quality and length of life but now a new study has shown that anxiety can directly take years off your life as well.

The new report has looked at the effect of anxiety on telomeres. These telomeres are bits of DNA protein at the end of chromosomes. When telomeres disappear your DNA cannot replicate itself properly and so shortening of the telomeres in your cells reflect aging. Short telomeres have been linked to diseases of aging like cancer, heart disease, and dementia. For this reason telomeres are seen as a central part of the aging process and you can measure how a person is aging by measuring their telomeres.

In the new study Harvard researchers used blood samples from 5,243 women aged between 42 and 69. The samples came from the Nurse’s Health Study which has been running since 1976. At the time that the samples were taken the women also given questionnaires that measured their levels of “phobic anxiety”, which includes things like unreasonable fears of crowds and heights. Using the blood samples the researchers measured the telomere length present in blood cells and sought to see if there was any link between anxiety levels and telomere length.

The analysis showed that women with the highest levels of phobic anxiety also had the shortest telomeres. The difference in telomere length between women with the highest anxiety levels and those with no anxiety levels was equivalent to six years of aging. The study does not irrefutably establish that anxiety causes telomere shortening and neither does it propose how it may happen. What it does illustrate quite clearly though is that anxiety is linked in some way to telomere shortening and therefore to accelerated aging.

So if you are suffering from anxiety be aware that it can not only make you sick it can shorten your life at the same time making it very worthwhile to consider how you can reduce your anxiety levels. As a motivating example consider the recent case study of a man who had been diagnosed with a very severe anxiety disorder. The practitioner treating the man took his wife aside and advised her that for a complete recovery she needed to reduce her husband’s anxiety levels to near zero. He advised that she should prepare three healthy organic meals a day, not burden him with household chores, refrain from discussing her problems with him, and make love with him several times a week. The practitioner said that if she could do that her husband would regain his health completely. When the husband asked his wife what the therapist had said she replied, “He said you’re going to die.”

If that raised a smile for you, that’s good. If not, chill out, and remind yourself that it’s all a fun journey and not worth stressing about; you’ll protect your telomeres and be younger for it.

Terry Robson

Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.

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