Chronic Stress and Health

written by Nancy Hepp, MS
Research and Communications Specialist

Nathan Seppa at ScienceNews published a summary of the state of knowledge about the effects of chronic stress on health. The summary draws from research on the effects of stress on heart attacks, stroke, cancer, premature childbirth, type 2 diabetes, telomere length, asthma and even the common cold. Seppa writes:

Chronic stress is the kind that comes from recurring pain, post-traumatic memories, unemployment, family tension, poverty, childhood abuse, caring for a sick spouse or just living in a sketchy neighborhood. Nonstop, low-grade stress contributes directly to physical deterioration, adding to the risk of heart attack, stroke, infection and asthma. Even recovery from cancer becomes harder.

Scientists have now identified many of the biological factors linking stress to these medical problems. The evidence centers on nagging inflammation and genetic twists that steer cells off a healthy course, resulting in immune changes that allow ailments to take hold or worsen.

Read the full article on the ScienceNews site.

Science Pick: Premature Aging and Waste Landfill Sites.

Ted Schettler
Science Director

See the article in Gene: Telomere shortening in women resident close to waste landfill sites

In this study, scientists from the University of Naples collected blood samples from 50 apparently healthy pregnant women living in an area of Italy with a large number of waste dumps and from a control group of 50 healthy women living in an unpolluted area. The purpose of the study was to compare the length of telomeres on the ends of chromosomes in the cells from women from the two areas.  Telomeres are caps on the ends of chromosomes that shorten successively with each cell division.  Short telomeres are associated with cell senescence, diseases of aging, and cancer. Oxidative stress in the cells may explain how exposure to pollution causes shortening of telomeres.    

After controlling for age of participants, telomeres on the chromosomes of white blood cells from women living in the polluted areas were determined to be significantly shorter than those from the control group. Moreover,  teleomere length became progressively shorter the closer participants lived to the polluted area. Although this study did not include a direct measure of exposure to pollutants in individual participants, the results are highly suggestive of a causal relationship between exposure and shortened telomeres. 

Previous studies have shown also reduction of telomere length associated with exposure to air pollution from traffic and other sources. These findings may help explain the increased risk of premature diseases of aging and cancer in populations exposed to various kinds of environmental pollution.