Phobic anxieties may age you

Phobic anxieties may age you.

Photo: Phobic anxieties may age you.

Do you get panicky in tight-closed spaces or perhaps open spaces? If these fears are frequent or debilitating, you might have a phobic anxiety, which may lead to faster biological ageing and possibly other health-related problems in middle-aged and older people.

“Many people wonder about whether stress can make us age faster,” said the study co-author, Olivia Okereke, a psychiatrist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, in a prepared statement.

The researchers examined blood samples and survey results from 5,243 women aged 42 to 69 years from the ongoing Nurses Health Study cohort. They found women who had the highest levels of phobic anxiety had biological markers of women who were six years older.

The study, published online in PLoS ONE this month, looked specifically at telomeres, the protective ends of chromosomes that keep genetic information from being lost during cell division.

As we age, our telomeres reportedly 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 ageing, according to Dr Okreke.

She noted, however, the current study did not explicitly test to see if anxiety caused the shortened telomeres. She and her co-authors wrote in their paper, “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 ageing and associated disease risks in millions by treating those anxieties.

Do you have any phobic anxieties? Share your thoughts on this article by commenting in the box below.