You probably don’t need scientific evidence to realize that stress is bad for both body and mind, but a recent study has identified specific connections between high-stress experiences and premature DNA damage – which is linked to aging. Researchers at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands have found that the stress of divorce and other difficult life changes could cause you to age more quickly and make you more likely to develop serious illnesses – such as cancer or Alzheimer’s.
Scientists determined that undergoing stressful experiences could speed up the aging of genetic material, causing the body to age prematurely. At the root of this finding are small yet vital structures called telomeres, which are situated at the ends of chromosomes and are relevant to the aging process because they protect DNA. A person’s telomeres naturally shorten as they get older, but scientists now know that stress can accelerate the process, leading to even more damage than that caused by aging.
“On average, people who experience more stressful events have a faster decline in telomere length,” says researcher Sonja van Ockenburg.
The University Medical Center Groningen study assessed 1094 adults and collected data at two-year intervals. Researchers analyzed blood samples for testing telomere length and participants were questioned regarding their experiences with adverse life events, such as divorce, job loss, or death of a loved one.
Although the overall findings are quite bleak, a key takeaway should be that it’s possible to reduce or manage your stress with a bit of effort. Dr. van Ockenburg had a few words of advice for anyone dealing with substantial stress: “From other studies, we know that even when people go through stressful events, if they exercise a lot, their telomeres seem to suffer less. So even though you are having a very hard time, you should try to exercise and de-stress.”
If you or someone you love is currently contending with a stressful divorce situation, staying active and learning about stress-management techniques can help mitigate the risks associated with negative life changes.