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Anxiety, exhaustion, and telomeres

It seems like just about everyone these days is stressed out and working too hard. We know it’s not good for us, but how bad is it really?

It might be worse than we’d like to think. Today, PLoS ONE published two separate studies investigating how anxiety and work-related exhaustion are correlated to the length of our telomeres, the protective caps on our chromosomes that help make sure our dividing cells have all the genetic material they need for long, healthy lives.

The short answer: both higher stress and severe exhaustion were found to be correlated with decreased telomere length, with potential implications for aging and long-term health. It’s important to note that the results are only correlative, and don’t show any causation, but they add to a suggestive and growing body of literature in this area.

Telomeres are the portions at the ends of our chromosomes, the packaged-up version of all of our DNA, which are critical for proper cell functioning. The telomeres themselves don’t contain any crucial information, but they protect the important parts of the chromosome from deterioration by slowly sacrificing themselves, a bit at a time, during each cell division. It’s thought that some of the issues associated with aging and some cancers may be caused by telomere shortening, which can lead to dysfunctional cells with incomplete chromosomes that die or go rogue.

The connection between telomere length and health remains somewhat tenuous, but they have become quite a hot spot for research, including the two articles published today. In one of the studies, “High Phobic Anxiety is Related to Lower Leukocyte Telomere Length in Women,” led by Olivia Okereke of Harvard University, the researchers compared telomere length with anxiety levels for 5,243 women between the ages of 42 and 69, and found that higher anxiety was generally associated with shorter telomere length. The other report, “Work-related Exhaustion and Telomere Length: A Population-based Study,” led by Kirsi Ahola of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, found a similar correlation between work-related exhaustion, which they interpreted as an indicator of prolonged work stress, and telomere length in 2,911 men and women aged 30 to 64, with severe exhaustion associated with markedly shorter telomeres.

Again, it’s important to remember that correlation does not equal causation, but perhaps these results at least offer a potential suggestion that we should all find a little more time to sit back and relax, something we should probably be doing regardless.


Okereke OI, Prescott J, Wong JYY, Han J, Rexrode KM, et al. (2012) High Phobic Anxiety Is Related to Lower Leukocyte Telomere Length in Women. PLoS ONE 7(7): e40516. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0040516

Ahola K, Sirén I, Kivimäki M, Ripatti S, Aromaa A, et al. (2012) Work-Related Exhaustion and Telomere Length: A Population-Based Study. PLoS ONE 7(7): e40186. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0040186

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