The effects of chronic untreated depression and anxiety aren’t limited to mental and emotional suffering: They may hasten aging, as well. Research has linked long-term psychological distress with greater risk for inflammation, oxidative stress, physical disease, and premature aging and death of the body’s cells, all of which ultimately shortens lifespan. Fortunately, psychological treatment, meditation and certain basic lifestyle changes can help reduce the likelihood of physical harm linked to mental distress.
Research published Jan. 14, 2014 in Molecular Psychiatry followed a group of individuals with persistent anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder for several decades, looking at changes in the length of partici-pants’ telomeres—caps on the ends of chromosomes that have been shown to be biological markers for aging and increased risk for a wide variety of chronic diseases (such as certain cancers, cardiovascular disease, stroke and diabetes). Scientists found that compared to a group of healthy study participants, those with mood disorders—especially males—showed evidence of shortened telomeres.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
These lifestyle factors, in addition to those highlighted by the Lancet Oncology research, are also associated with increased longevity:
- Finding ways to reduce stress
- Getting at least seven hours of high-quality sleep each night
- Avoiding smoking and drinking to excess (more than two alcoholic drinks per day)
“Telomeres are nucleoprotein structures located at the ends of chromosomes which shorten with repetitive cell division and replication,” explained Elizabeth Hoge, MD, a psychiatrist and investigator in MGH’s Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders. “Generally, telomeres shorten with age, and this shortening may be accelerated in the presence of cellular oxidative damage or chronic psychological stress. Several studies have now linked higher levels of psychological and life stress with shorter telomeres.
“The findings demonstrate the importance of treatment for mood disorders and other types of psycho-logical stress. Engaging in regular meditation, stress reduction, and exercise can also help individuals remain healthy in the face of emotional and psychological challenges.”
Meditation and telomeres
Recent research by Dr. Hoge published August 2013 in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that a program of regular mindfulness meditation significantly reduced anxiety symptoms in individuals with generalized anxiety disorder and improved their ability to cope with stress. Mindfulness meditation is a form of meditation that emphasizes awareness of present sensations and surroundings, and nonjudgmental acceptance of thoughts and feelings. Another study, published in the August 2013 issue of the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, found that women who were experienced meditators had significantly longer relative telomere length than women who did not meditate.
“My research suggests that meditation can be very effective in reducing the suffering caused by psychological disorders and is also associated with longer telomeres,” Dr. Hoge says. “It’s important to note that telomere shortening linked to mental distress isn’t only associated with psychiatric disorders—it has also been associated with negative life experiences, such as poverty, abuse, loneliness, and a persistent attitude of hostility. Meditation can help ease these effects as well.”
Meditation is one of at least four strategies that individuals can pursue on their own that appear to directly affect cell aging and result in longer telomeres. A small study published October 2013 in The Lancet Oncology found that participants who meditated for 60 minutes a day and made three additional lifestyle changes experienced significant telomere lengthening over a period of five years, while participants who continued their normal lifestyle experienced telomere shortening. The lifestyle factors linked in the study to longer telomeres—plus the additional factor of altruism added by Dr. Hoge—include:
- Diet: Consuming a diet high in whole foods, plant-based protein, fruits, and vegetables, and low in fat and refined carbohydrates.
- Exercise: A moderate program of aerobic exercise consisting of walking 30 minutes per day for six days a week
- Increased social support: “The social support individuals derive from meaningful relationships with friends and family is important because it helps lower stress and promote resilience that is associated with im-proved health and longevity,” says Dr. Hoge.
- Altruism: “Focusing on other people in a pro-social way—such as by volunteering—cultivating a sense of loving kindness toward others, and working to replace hostile thoughts with positive thoughts are immensely beneficial for one’s own health and wellbeing.”
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