Vowing to maintain stress levels at the start of the new year may have other implications besides just arriving at a happier you.
In fact, reducing stress can significantly prolong your life, according to researchers.
Carol Greider, a Davis native, received the Nobel Prize Oct. 5 along with researchers Elizabeth Blackburn and Jack Szostak for their extensive research on telomeres – an important stretch of DNA that works to protect our chromosomes and prevent their deterioration. Their work identified the molecular nature of telomeres and revealed an important connection between levels of stress and telomere length.
“Telomeres can be considered a special protective cap of extra DNA on the end of the chromosome and are very important in biology because if we did not have them, we could lose some of our important DNA,” said UC Davis Biology professor Jonathan Eisen. “Anything is possible in biology, and stress can cause lots of problems.”
According to a research study conducted by Blackburn, high levels of stress and shortened telomeres go hand in hand, with shortened telomeres significantly contributing to rapidly aging cells. The case study involved thirty-nine women, ages twenty to fifty, who had been caring for a child suffering from a serious chronic illness, such as autism or cerebral palsy. Presuming that these women were under high levels of stress, their telomere lengths were compared to a group of nineteen women with perfectly healthy children.
“We started with the observation that people look really old and drawn when they have chronic worries and stress in their lives,” Blackburn said in a press release. “But we had no hypothesis about whether we’d see an effect on telomeres in the cell. Nobody knew, so I said we should just look.”
Blackburn and assisting researchers discovered a clear correlation between the number of years a woman had been caring for her sick child and shortening of telomeres. Stressed women also had lower levels of telomerase in their white blood cells, the enzyme responsible for delaying the aging of cells.
“We didn’t expect to see such a clear relationship right across the full range,” Blackburn said. “We crafted a beautiful study where we had a well controlled group of individuals, and the relationship between stress and telomere length really held.”
As a means of reducing stress, the study suggests engaging in relaxing activities like yoga or walking to preserve the protection of chromosomes. Many of these activities are available for students.
UC Davis Counseling and Psychological Services’ Stress and Wellness groups include Yoga for Stress Reduction and five-session weekly groups to practice relaxation exercises that involve diaphragmatic breathing and mediation exercises.
“The groups are designed to help participants better understand how stress and anxiety are at work in their lives and ways to create and maintain balance,” said CAPS psychologist and Coordinator of Stress and Wellness Clinics Dorje Jennette. “Participants will learn to identify patterns and triggers of stress or anxiety and implement daily techniques to maintain a healthier lifestyle.”
REBECCA SHRAGGE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.