Can Anxiety Age You?

Stress is likely to accelerate the aging process

anxious woman looking at wrinkles

By: Holly L. Thacker, MD

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Even the question, “Can anxiety age you?” strikes a chord of terror in one’s heart, mind, or more specifically one’s telomeres. Yes, it is true; the mental effects of anxiety translate to physical effects which include changes at the molecular and genetic level.

Telomere shortening

Telomeres are DNA-protein complexes that cap chromosomes and promote chromosome stability. Recent research from a large cross sectional study of women looking at telomere shortening in highly anxious and phobic women compared to those who were less anxious showed shortening of the telomeres.

Telomere shortening has been shown to occur in anxious individuals and this capping or shortening of the genetic material in your cells has been estimated to age one by at least 6-10 years! Telomeres allow cells to distinguish chromosome ends from broken DNA. Immortal cells (forever young cells) avoid telomere loss. Cigarette smoking accelerates aging and thus shortens telomeres. Shorter telomeres have also been associated with a higher risk for cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, dementia, and arthritis. On the flip-side, long telomeres are related to healthy aging and overall longevity.

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Protect your telomeres

Research has suggested that yoga, a heart healthy diet, and increased physical activity are all associated with increases in the enzyme called “telomerase” that protects telomeres from shortening. Although this is a new area of research, it appears we can act to protect our telomeres and maintain telomere length — and increase our health and longevity.

So in addition to avoiding inactivity, weight gain, smoking, and a poor diet, we need to work to reduce anxiety levels.  Stressors cause an outpouring of adrenaline, the so-called ‘fight or flight’ hormone. When adrenaline pulses through your blood vessels, your heart races, blood pressure rises, pulse quickens and respiration increases. I have seen countless women plagued by anxiety disorders including panic attacks, phobias, and generalized anxiety disorder. They are distraught, exhausted and are hyper vigilant and are unfortunately likely accelerating their aging process.

There are many medication and non-medication therapies to help reset the autonomic nervous system. One should never suffer from continued panic attacks. Every week some woman visits my clinic wondering if her female hormones ‘are out of balance.’ Many times it is not the estrogen or progesterone that is out of balance, but rather too much adrenaline.

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So, whenever you look at the clock and realize you are late (something that happens to me daily), take a deep cleansing breath. Rather than brood about a problem, get out and take a brisk walk. When you feel stressed and want to reach for some high-carb, high fat non-nutritional snack, ask for a massage instead. And if you are plagued by excessive fear, anxiety or a phobia, please be sure to visit a trusted physician.

Today, when I sat back and relaxed during my glorious pedicure (an iridescent French pink) and foot massage, I thought that my telomeres were lengthening. Take time every day to nurture yourself and seek personal peace. Your telomeres will thank you!

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