Women with phobias may experience accelerated aging.

Someone who is afraid to be in crowds or to go outside might tell you that their persistent fear seems to have the diabolical power to age them. Now science is suggesting that this feeling might not be just a state of mind for people suffering from phobic anxiety (phobias).

New Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) research, featuring a subset of over 5,000 participants from the landmark Nurses’ Health Study, shows that middle-aged and older women with phobic anxiety tend to have shortened telomeres (DNA proteins), a condition that is considered to be a sign of accelerated aging and has been linked to an increased risk of cancers, heart disease, and dementia. The study found that highly phobic women tend to have telomere lengths similar to non-phobic women who are six years older.

Phobic anxiety, a constant irrational fear of an object, situation, or activity, affects up to 10 percent of our population. Aside from its potential impact on aging, it can have significant psychological and physical health effects, including depression and heart disease.

Telomeres, located at the ends of chromosomes, are responsible for protecting chromosomes from deteriorating and protecting genetic data during cell division. Each time a cell divides, its telomeres naturally get shorter. Chronic stress, however, may damage telomeres and cause them to shorten more quickly. When telomeres get too short, cells lose their ability to divide and begin to function abnormally.

“Many people wonder about whether, and how, stress can make us age faster,” said Dr. Olivia Okereke, a physician in the Department of Psychiatry and the study’s lead author. “This study is notable for showing a connection between a common form of psychological stress, phobic anxiety, and a plausible mechanism for premature aging.  However, this type of study design cannot prove cause-and-effect, or which problem came first — the anxiety or shorter telomeres.”

The study opens the door for developing a different type of study to determine whether anxiety causes faster shortening of telomeres or the other way around. But regardless of the cause and effect in this case, numerous other studies have shown that psychological stress is bad for your health, including a recent BWH study that finds that women with high job stress are at greater risk for heart disease.

Visit the PLoS ONE online journal to read the complete published findings about anxiety’s relation to shortened telomeres.

– Chris P







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