Harvard Health Letter

Ask the doctor: Does stress make us age faster?

Q. I hear that stress causes our cells to age faster. Is there something to this, or is it just more nonsense to worry about?

A. I think you're probably talking about research showing that stress affects a critically important part of every cell in our body—the telomeres. If so, it is not nonsense. In fact, it's part of a discovery so important that it led to the Nobel Prize.

The telomeres are the ends of the chromosomes—the structures inside each cell that contain the genes. Over time, the telomeres get shorter. When they get short enough, the cell dies. Chronic stress leads to shorter telomeres. And people with shorter telomeres are at greater risk for several major diseases, including heart disease and some forms of cancer.

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