A new study conducted by Finnish researchers has confirmed what many of us have known for years: our stressful jobs are making us age faster.
The research led by Kirsi Ahola of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health measured the length of DNA sections called telomeres and how the lengths varied in association with job stress. It found that people suffering from the most job stress tended to have shorter telomeres.
Telomeres, located at the ends of chromosomes, serve as a type of protective cap to the ropy strands, helping assure that the genetic instructions carried by genes on the chromosomes are accurately translated so cells get the right messages.
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Telomeres shorten with age, oxidation and chemical insults. Often, when telomeres reach a critically short length, the cell dies in a process called apoptosis, NBC reported.
Some cells do not die, but rather become what scientists call ‘senescent’ – they start making genetic errors and causing damage.
As part of their research, which appeared in the journal PloS One this month, Ahola and her team analyzed blood cells called leukocytes – which are critical to immune function – in 2,911 people between ages 30 and 64.
They found that workers who experienced severe exhaustion from job stress had significantly shorter leukocyte telomeres than their relatively stress-free counterparts.
But it appears that frazzled wage earners have more to worry about than crow’s feet, wrinkles and greying locks. Telomere shortening has been linked to Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Wear-and-tear: Researchers determined that stress exhaustion shortens telomeres (marked in yellow), which serve as protective caps to strands of chromosomes
In short, being in a constant state of anxiety at your workplace could make you old before your time and expose you to illnesses associated with aging.
‘I think that these results should be used when considering health hazards and work place legislation,’ Ahola told NBC News. ‘Chronic work stress can become a health risk and should be prevented.’
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She acknowledged that ‘both individual and environmental factors affect the experience of stress,’ so the same objective workplace conditions could have greater or lesser effects depending upon personal traits.
Aoife O’Donovan, a research fellow at the University of California San Francisco, who studies the relationship between telomeres and stress, said that science cannot yet make definite cause and effect statements about telomere length, stress, aging and disease.
Health risks: Telomere shortening has been linked to Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer
Beside work, a host of stress factors can affect telomere length, including martial problems, poverty, early childhood trauma and even gender (men tend to have shorter telomeres than women). A person’s diet and harmful habits like smoking or drinking can also have an impact.
The Finnish researchers adjusted their findings to take some of these factors into account, but it’s not possible to neutralize them entirely.
Still, O’Donovan does not question the validity of the connection between work stress and telomere shortening.
‘When you get a high enough dose of stress, hardly anyone is resilient,’ she said.
Stress builds on itself, she added. ‘Chronic stress begets chronic stress.’