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Major Phobias Might Hasten Aging

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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phobias might cause premature aging

Image courtesy of iStockphoto/Kuzma

Do you get panicky in wide-open spaces? Tight, closed ones? What about in high places or—eek!—around arachnids? If these fears are frequent or debilitating, you might have a phobic anxiety. And you would not be alone—at least 8 percent of Americans have at least one.

All of this psychological stress could be taking a toll on physical health. A new study suggests that intense phobic anxiety can lead to faster biological aging—and possibly to related health problems—in middle-aged and older women.

“Many people wonder about whether—and how—stress can make us age faster,” said study co-author Olivia Okereke a psychiatrist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston in a prepared statement. So she and her colleagues set out to test that idea.

The researchers examined blood samples and survey results from 5,243 women ages 42 to 69 from the ongoing Nurses Health Study cohort. They found that women who had the highest levels of phobic anxiety had biological markers of women who were six years older. The findings were published online July 11 in PLoS ONE.

Okereke and her colleagues looked specifically at telomeres, the protective ends of chromosomes that keep genetic information from being lost during cell division. As we age, our telomeres shorten naturally. Scientists suspect this shortening results from exposure to oxidative stress and inflammation. (Shorter telomeres, especially for one’s age, have been implicated in upping the risk for heart disease, cancer and dementia.)

The new results demonstrate “a connection between a common form of psychological stress—phobic anxiety—and a plausible mechanism for premature aging,” Okreke said. She noted, however, that the current study did not explicitly test to see if the anxiety caused the shortened telomeres. She and her co-authors wrote in their paper that, “although the literature is at an early stage, there is biologic plausibility to support relations of anxiety to shorter telomeres, particularly via oxidative stress and inflammation.”

Phobic anxieties often start up early in life and are especially common in women. But on the upside, they are treatable with therapy. If phobias are indeed shortening telomeres, it might be possible to hedge premature aging and associated disease risks in millions by treating those anxieties.

Katherine Harmon Courage About the Author: Katherine Harmon Courage is a freelance writer and contributing editor for Scientific American. Her book Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature In the Sea is out now from Penguin/Current. Follow on Twitter @KHCourage.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. lamorpa 8:08 am 07/12/2012

    Worrying a lot causes premature aging? This is a discovery?

    Link to this
  2. 2. ironjustice 7:23 pm 07/13/2012

    Quote: “a connection between a common form of psychological stress—phobic anxiety—and a plausible mechanism for premature aging,”

    Answer: Increased ageing has been linked to increased oxidation.
    “Measuring the length of telomeres after exposure to oxidative stress”
    Phobias have been linked to increased oxidation.
    “Antioxidant enzyme and malondialdehyde values in social phobia”
    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15309392

    Could the link between anxiety and ageing be the increased oxidative stress , just like Dr. Jerome Sullivan linked white hair to the oxidative stress from hemochromatosis / iron excess ?

    Link to this
  3. 3. Kafpauzo 5:19 am 07/17/2012

    Lamorpa, are you saying that the details of how anxiety and aging are linked should not be investigated? Are you saying that it’s wrong to investigate the details of how things work?

    If you don’t like science, I suggest you read some other website.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Petra 5:08 pm 07/18/2012

    The results shouldn’t come as a surprise to many, though I’m puzzled as to only 8% are being affected.

    Middle aged women wear a lot of hats in life and along with job related stress from working women are predominately taking care of household duties, monitoring their children’s activities and may be caring for someone’s parents as well. Now add divorce in the mix and becoming a single parent with more responsibilities than ever and it’s a recipe for monumental stress normally not part of an average man’s lifestyle.

    So as one measures anxiety in this equation it’s a given. Yet if we realize how the mind affects the body and we know stress causes cancer, we should simply ask; What’s eating on you? And therein lie the seeds for cancer itself.

    Thus maybe if someone asked, do you feel overwhelmed and fear failure on any front? In answering yes, then we see the seeds of anxiety as a result.

    Link to this

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