WASHINGTON -- A recent study have identified the first direct link between stress and aging, a finding that could explain why intense, long-term emotional strain can make people get sick and grow old before their time.
Chronic stress appears to hasten the shrivelling of the tips of the bundles of genes inside cells, which shortens their lifespan and speeds the body's deterioration, according to a small but first-of-its-kind study involving mothers caring for chronically ill children.
If the findings are confirmed, they could provide the first explanation on a cellular level for the well-documented association between psychological stress and increased risk of physical disease, as well as the common perception that unrelenting emotional pressure accelerates the aging process.
"There is this deeply-held belief that stress leads to premature aging. But there is no hard evidence for how this might happen," said Elissa Epel, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), who helped conduct the research.
"This is the first time that psychological stress has been linked to a cellular indicator of aging in healthy people." The findings could lead to new ways to detect the early physical effects of stress and monitor whether attempts to alleviate its effects are working, she said.
While cautioning that the findings needed to be confirmed by additional research, other scientists said the results represent an unprecedented step in deciphering the intricacies of the mind-body connection.