Why stress of divorce could make you age more quickly: Breakups, bereavements and unemployment can make body’s genetic material deteriorate prematurely
It is one of the most stressful experiences faced by many. But divorce may have a lot more than emotional and financial costs – it could also damage the DNA of those going through it. Scientists have shown that divorce, along with bereavement, unemployment and other life-changing events, ends up making the body’s genetic material age prematurely. Worryingly, these changes may raise the risk of serious illness, including Alzheimer’s disease, heart problems and cancer.
Researcher Sonja van Ockenburg said: “We found that, on average, people who experience more stressful life events have a faster decline in telomere length. We know that if your telomeres shorten faster, this is associated with the development of cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.”
For the project at the University Medical Centre Groningen, the Netherlands, she examined 1,094 adults and measured the telomere length in blood cells taken as samples. The measurements were taken again after four years and then six years.
On the two later occasions, the participants were also asked about their experience of very stressful events such as divorce, unemployment, suffering serious problems with a close friend or the death of a loved one.
The study found that exposure to stress seemed to speed up the shortening of telomeres. They also discovered this effect was greater than the decline linked with age.
It is not known how stress affects telomeres, but one possibility is that the hormone cortisol fuels the damage. However, Dr. van Ockenburg had some encouraging advice. She said: “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.”
Her study in the journal Psychological Science looked at severe stress but the pressure of everyday life may also have an effect.
Dr. van Ockenburg has previously, linked neuroticism to faster telomere decay. “If people tend to worry more or are more irritable, their telomeres decrease faster,” she said.