Stress, ageing and telomeres

Telomeres and ageing

It is only in the last 50 years that scientists have sought to methodically examine and analyse the associations between the heart, brain and mind. It began in the 1970s with Friedman and Rosenman’s work into type A personality and behavioural style and now there is a clear recognition across diverse disciplines that the cardiovascular system and the mind are intimately interconnected. Research is showing that this is not only in an efferent direction i.e. the brain to the heart (primarily the medulla for regulating sympathetic and parasympathetic outflow to the heart, and the hypothalamus and cortex modifying cardiac responses to emotion and stress etc) but also in an afferent direction i.e. the heart sending signals up to the brain reaching areas such as the medulla, then onto hypothalamus, amygdala and thalamus thereby inserting an influence on it. Although still in its infancy, some very promising linkages are materialising.

Ground-breaking research done by Elizabeth Blackburn has shown that chronic stress shortens the length of our chromosomes (our genes), which has potential implications for our life span (e.g. if our life span is to be 85 years, we want a healthy life span where we are able to do the things we want to do, as opposed to the same life span but with a prolonged disease span where we are able to do less and with more illness appearing). This research has shown that stress affects the telomeres which are the nucleoprotein “caps” at the end of our chromosomes and protect against chromosomal instability and deterioration.  The protector of the telomeres is telomerase and if production of this enzyme is affected it will lead to the cell being unable to divide anymore as it gets too short and dies.

Studies have been performed that have measured telomere length (TL) in heart cells and assessed the relationship between cardiac TL and heart function. Factors such as loss of telomeric proteins (such as telomerase), over-eating, sedentary lifestyle or increased oxidative stress decrease cardiac TL and heart function while antioxidants, good nutrition, exercise and lowering of stress levels can help prevent cardiac telomere attrition and the progression of cardio vascular disease.  Research is continuing to look into the potential role of the importance of TL in determining cardiac repair and the potential clinical outcome.

Elissa Epel: Emotions Stress and Rate of Telomere Shortening: Are Our Cells Listening to Us?
University of California Television (UCTV)
Published on Mar 22, 2012.