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Psychological stress and disease: UCSF-led study suggests connection

Increasing scientific evidence suggests that prolonged psychological stress takes its toll on the body, but the exact mechanisms by which stress influences disease processes have remained elusive. Now, scientists report that psychological stress may exact its toll, at least in part, by affecting molecules believed to play a key role in cellular aging and, possibly, disease development.

In the study, published in the November 30 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the UCSF-led team determined that chronic stress, and the perception of life stress, each had a significant impact on three biological factors -- the length of telomeres, the activity of telomerase, and levels of oxidative stress -- in immune system cells known as peripheral blood mononucleocytes, in healthy premenopausal women.

Telomeres are DNA-protein complexes that cap the ends of chromosomes and promote genetic stability. Each time a cell divides, a portion of telomeric DNA dwindles away, and after many rounds of cell division, so much telomeric DNA has diminished that the aged cell stops dividing. Thus, telomeres play a critical role in determining the number of times a cell divides, its health, and its life span. These factors, in turn, affect the health of the tissues that cells form. Telomerase is an enzyme that replenishes a portion of telomeres with each round of cell division, and protects telomeres. Oxidative stress, which causes DNA damage, has been shown to hasten the shortening of telomeres in cell culture.

The results of the study -- which involved 58 women, ages 20-50, all of whom were biological mothers either of a chronically ill child (39 women, so-called "caregivers") or a healthy child (19 women, or "controls") -- were dramatic.

As expected, most women who cared for a chronically ill child reported that they were more stressed than women in the control group, though, as a group, their biological markers were not different fr
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Contact: Jennifer O'Brien
jobrien@pubaff.ucsf.edu
415-476-2557
University of California - San Francisco
29-Nov-2004


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