By Katherine Harmon | July 11, 2012
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.