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For the study, scientists looked at telomere length in more than 5,200 women, aged 42 to 69. Telomeres are structures that protect the ends of chromosomes from deterioration. Shortened telomeres have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, heart disease, dementia and death.
The team at Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) in Boston found that phobic anxiety was associated with shorter telomeres in the women. The difference in telomere lengths for women with high levels of phobic anxiety compared to those without this type of stress disorder was similar to what was seen for an additional six years of age.
The findings suggest that phobic anxiety is a possible risk factor for premature aging, according to the study published online July 11 in the journal PLoS One.
According to experts, phobic anxiety disorders, like agoraphobia or claustrophobia, involve intense fear triggered by common circumstances that would not bother others.
"Many people wonder about whether -- and how -- stress can make us age faster," study author Dr. Olivia Okereke of the BWH department of psychiatry, said in a hospital news release. "So, this study is notable for showing a connection between a common form of psychological stress -- phobic anxiety -- and a plausible mechanism for premature aging. However, this type of study design cannot prove cause-and-effect or which problem came first -- the anxiety or shorter telomeres."
The findings open the door to further research into the link between anxiety and changes in telomere length.
-- Robert Preidt
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