Does Stress Really Shorten Your Life?

Does Stress Really Shorten Your Life?

Most of us associate stress with grey hair, poor health, feelings of fatigue and looking tired. We often think that sustained periods of intense stress make us age more quickly. Recent studies have indeed shown that stress is linked with poor health, heart disease and reduced immunity.

The exact mechanism that connects the mind to our body and cells is still not fully understood. Some researchers have looked at the effects of stress on telomere length. Telomeres are an essential part of our cells and protect our DNA. Sometimes compared to the plastic tips seen on shoe laces, telomeres are attached to the ends of DNA strands and protect our chromosomes and genes from deterioration during replication. As we age, telomeres lose some of their length due to the replication of our DNA. This shortening is related to the fact that when DNA is copied, the ends of the DNA strands cannot be copied. This means that over time the telomeres lose some of their length. On the other hand, there is an enzyme known as the telomerase enzyme that helps to maintain telomere length. Overall, telomere length is an indication of aging, and patients with poor health often have shorter telomeres. Significant health problems such as heart attacks have also been shown to lead to shorter telomeres.

When researchers looked at the effect of stress on telomeres, their findings were fascinating but also mirrored what most of us would intuitively guess.[i] Psychological stress was found to lead to oxidative stress. Activation of the stress response results in the production of hormones known as glucocorticoidswhich in turn causes the formation of free radicals. The free-radical theory of aging is one of the proposed mechanisms by which our tissues and bodies age.[ii] Essentially, a free radical is a highly reactive molecule that lacks an electron. When this molecule encounters another molecule or cell in our body it steals one of its electrons, thereby causing damage to our cellular structures. Some studies have shown that reducing free radical damage can extend life, while others show that increased free radical damage reduces longevity.[iii]-[iv] Some preliminary research also shows that free radicals shorten telomeres.

When looking at actual telomere length, perceived stress was more important than stressful situations. This means that the stress you “feel” has a greater impact than the stress you experience. In one study, researchers looked at caregivers — known to have high stress levels — and a control group with normal stress levels. Although results showed that in the long run stressful conditions such as being a caregiver were associated with shorter telomeres, in the short term, perceived stress or psychological stress was more important overall. Perceived stress was associated with oxidative stress, telomere length and worsened telomerase activity.

The results clearly indicate that stress has significant implications for human health. The evidence showed that experiencing more stress reduces lifespan and is linked to poor health outcomes. Given that stress also worsens your quality of life, having effective stress coping strategies in place is essential for a long, happy and healthy life.

With the effects of stress apparent on the body, there are many changes you can make in your life to reduce the effects. Here are some lifestyle changes you can do to reduce stress in your life.


[i] Epel ES, Blackburn EH, Lin J, Dhabhar FS, Adler NE, Morrow JD, Cawthon RM. Accelerated telomere shortening in response to life stress. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2004 Dec 7;101(49):17312-5.

[ii] Hekimi S, Lapointe J, Wen Y. Taking a “good” look at free radicals in the aging process. Trends In Cell Biology. 2011;21(10) 569-76.

[iii] Fontana L, Partridge L, Longo VD. Extending Healthy Life Span—From Yeast to Humans. Science. 2010 April 16, 2010;328(5976) 321-6.

[iv]  Pérez VI, Bokov A, Remmen HV, Mele J, Ran Q, Ikeno Y, et al. Is the oxidative stress theory of aging dead? Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA) – General Subjects. 2009;1790(10) 1005-14.

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