Contact: Juliana Bunim
University of California – San Francisco
Healthy lifestyle may buffer against stress-related cell aging,
UC San Francisco study suggests healthy diet, sleep and exercise
can mitigate negative impacts of stress
A new study from UC San Francisco is the first to show that while
the impact of life’s stressors accumulate overtime and accelerate
cellular aging, these negative effects may be reduced by
maintaining a healthy diet, exercising and sleeping well.
“The study participants who exercised, slept well and ate well had
less telomere shortening than the ones who didn’t maintain healthy
lifestyles, even when they had similar levels of stress,” said lead
author Eli Puterman, PhD, assistant professor in the department of
psychiatry at UCSF. “It’s very important that we promote healthy
living, especially under circumstances of typical experiences of
life stressors like death, caregiving and job loss.”
The paper will be published in Molecular Psychiatry, a peer-
reviewed science journal by Nature Publishing Group.
Telomeres are the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes that
affect how quickly cells age. They are combinations of DNA and
proteins that protect the ends of chromosomes and help them remain
stable. As they become shorter, and as their structural integrity
weakens, the cells age and die quicker. Telomeres also get shorter
In the study, researchers examined three healthy behaviors
–physical activity, dietary intake and sleep quality – over the
course of one year in 239 post-menopausal, non-smoking women. The
women provided blood samples at the beginning and end of the year
for telomere measurement and reported on stressful events that
occurred during those 12 months. In women who engaged in lower
levels of healthy behaviors, there was a significantly greater
decline in telomere length in their immune cells for every major
life stressor that occurred during the year. Yet women who
maintained active lifestyles, healthy diets, and good quality sleep
appeared protected when exposed to stress – accumulated life
stressors did not appear to lead to greater shortening.
“This is the first study that supports the idea, at least
observationally, that stressful events can accelerate immune cell
aging in adults, even in the short period of one year. Exciting,
though, is that these results further suggest that keeping active,
and eating and sleeping well during periods of high stress are
particularly important to attenuate the accelerated aging of our
immune cells,” said Puterman.
In recent years, shorter telomeres have become associated with a
broad range of aging-related diseases, including stroke, vascular
dementia, cardiovascular disease, obesity, osteoporosis diabetes,
and many forms of cancer.
Research on telomeres, and the enzyme that makes them, telomerase,
was pioneered by three Americans, including UCSF molecular
biologist and co-author Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD. Blackburn co-
discovered the telomerase enzyme in 1985. The scientists received
the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 for their work.
“These new results are exciting yet observational at this point.
They do provide the impetus to move forward with interventions to
modify lifestyle in those experiencing a lot of stress, to test
whether telomere attrition can truly be slowed,” said Blackburn.
Co-authors include senior author Elissa Epel, PhD, department of
psychiatry, Jue Lin, PhD, department of biochemistry and
biophysics, both of UCSF and Jeffrey Krauss, MD, division of
physical medicine and rehabilitation at Stanford University. Lin,
Epel and Blackburn are the co-founders of Telome Health Inc., a
diagnostic company measuring telomere biology.
The study was supported by the Baumann Foundation and the Barney &
Barbro Foundation. Puterman is supported by the National Heart,
Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health.