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Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2006 Apr;31(3):277-87. Epub 2005 Nov 17.

Cell aging in relation to stress arousal and cardiovascular disease risk factors.

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  • 1UCSF Department of Psychiatry, San Francisco, CA, USA.


We previously reported that psychological stress is linked to and possibly accelerates cellular aging, as reflected by lower PBMC telomerase and shortened telomeres. Psychological stress is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD), with multiple behavioral and physiological mediators. Telomere shortness has been associated with CVD, but the relationship between low telomerase activity, a potential precursor to telomere shortening, and CVD risk factors has not been examined in humans. Here we examine whether telomere length and telomerase in leukocytes are associated with physiological signs of stress arousal and CVD risk factors in 62 healthy women. Low telomerase activity in leukocytes was associated with exaggerated autonomic reactivity to acute mental stress and elevated nocturnal epinephrine. Further, low telomerase activity was associated with the major risk factors for CVD -smoking, poor lipid profile, high systolic blood pressure, high fasting glucose, greater abdominal adiposity-as well as to a composite Metabolic Syndrome variable. Telomere length was related only to elevated stress hormones (catecholamines and cortisol). Thus, we propose that low leukocyte telomerase constitutes an early marker of CVD risk, possibly preceding shortened telomeres, that results in part from chronic stress arousal. Possible cellular mechanisms by which low telomerase may link stress and traditional risk factors to CVD are discussed. These findings may implicate telomerase as a novel and important mediator of the effects of psychological stress on physical health and disease.

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