No, it's not your imagination that George Bush has aged more in four years than a mere four years would account for. Yes, stress really does accelerate aging at the DNA level, the Washington Post reports on a study in today's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (there's the link; if you can find the paper, more power to ya).
UCSF psychiatrist Elissa Epel and colleagues studied white blood cells from "39 women ages 20 to 50 who had been experiencing grinding stress for years because they were caring for a child suffering from a serious chronic illness, such as autism or cerebral palsy, and 19 other very similar women whose children were healthy." The stressed women had shorter telomeres, those caps at the end of our chromosomes that shorten each time a cell divides. When the telomeres run out, the cell can't divide any more, and it dies. The stressed women also had lower levels of telomerase, an enzyme that rebuilds our telomeres in a cellular race against death, and that naturally declines with age.
This is of immediate personal interest to me and anyone else who takes care of an ailing child, parent, spouse, or country. But there's a fascinating catch. The key variable wasn't any objective measure of stress -- it was perceived stress. In other words, it wasn't what these women had to do, day in and day out; it was how they felt about it -- how imprisoned or rewarded, how in or out of control. There was a direct correlation between the intensity of perceived stress and the biological age of cells, as measured by the length of telomeres, the concentration of telomerase, and the level of oxidative stress in the white blood cells. The women who felt most stressed had cells ten years "older" than those who felt the least stressed.
This finding led Dr. Epel to recommend meditation, yoga, and other stress-reducing activities as ways not merely to feel better, but literally to stay younger, and possibly live longer. Attitude -- in which we have a choice -- and temperament, for which we can somewhat compensate, must also play a huge part. My temperament tends to oscillate between the dire and the resigned, but I'm studying the Feldenkrais Method, a playful, gentle, powerful movement-learning modality that just makes everything -- brain, body, mood -- work better. It not only makes me less of a bitch and gives me something kind and helpful to do with my husband; it has saved my own health, serenity and sanity.
I can feel it all the way down to my frazzled telomeres.