Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Chronic Stress Can Steal Years From Caregivers' Lifetimes

Science Daily The chronic stress that spouses and children develop while caring for Alzheimer's disease patients may shorten the caregivers' lives by as much as four to eight years, a new study suggests.

The research also provides concrete evidence that the effects of chronic stress can be seen both at the genetic and molecular level in chronic caregivers' bodies.

The findings, reported recently by researchers from Ohio State University and the federal National Institute of Aging, were published in the Journal of Immunology.

These are the latest results from a nearly three-decade-long program at Ohio State investigating the links between psychological stress and a weakened immune status. Previous studies have examined medical students, newlyweds, divorced spouses, widows, widowers and long-married couples, in each case, looking for physiological effects caused by psychological stress.

In their recent study, Ronald Glaser, a professor of molecular virology, immunology and medical genetics, and Jan Kiecolt-Glaser, a professor of psychology and psychiatry, teamed with Nan-ping Weng and his research group from the National Institute of Aging.

Earlier work by other researchers had shown that mothers caring for chronically ill children developed changes in their chromosomes that effectively amounted to several years of additional aging among those caregivers.

That work, remarkable as it was, looked only at a broad community of immune cells without identifying the specific immune components responsible for the changes. The Ohio State-NIA team wanted to identify the exact cells involved in the changes, as well as the mechanisms that caused them.

They focused on telomeres, areas of genetic material on the ends of a cell's chromosomes. Over time, as a cell divides, those telomeres shorten, losing genetic instructions. An enzyme – telomerase – normally works to repair that damage to the chromosome, Glaser said.

“Telomeres are like caps on the chromosome,” said Glaser, head of Ohio State 's Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research. “Think of it as a frayed rope – if the caps weren't there, the rope would unravel. The telomeres insulate and protect the ends of the chromosomes.

“As we get older, the telomeres shorten and the activity of the telomerase enzyme lessens,” he said. “It's part of the aging process.”

For the study, the researchers turned to a population of Alzheimer's disease caregivers they had worked with before, and compared them with an equal number of non-caregivers matched for age, gender and other aspects. They analyzed blood samples from each group, looking for differences in both the telomeres and the enzyme, as well as populations of immune cells.

“Caregivers showed the same kind of patterns present in the study of mothers of chronically ill kids,” Glaser said, adding that the changes the Ohio State/NIA team saw amounted to a shortened lifespan of four to eight years.

“We believe that the changes in these immune cells represent the whole cell population in the body, suggesting that all the body's cells have aged that same amount.”

The caregivers also differed dramatically with the control group on psychological surveys intended to measure depression, a clear cause of stress.

“Those symptoms of depression in caregivers were twice as severe as those apparent among the control group,” Kiecolt-Glaser said.

“Caregivers also had fewer lymphocytes,” Glaser said, “a very important component of the immune system. They also showed a higher level of cytokines, molecules key to the inflammation response, than did the control group.”

Other experiments showed that the actual telomeres in blood cells of caregivers were shorter than those of the controls, and that the level of the telomerase repair enzyme among caregivers was also lower.

Kiecolt-Glaser said that there is ample epidemiological data showing that stressed caregivers die sooner than people not in that role.

“Now we have a good biological reason for why this is the case,” she said. “We now have a mechanistic progression that shows why, in fact, stress is bad for you, how it gets into the body and how it gets translated into a bad biological outcome.”

Much of the Ohio State work is now shifting to studies on how to intervene with that stress in hopes of slowing the weakening of the immune system in highly stressed people.

This research was supported in part by both the National Institute of Aging and the National Institutes of Health. David Beversdorf and Bryon Laskowski, both at Ohio State, and Amanda Damjanovic, Yinhua Yang, Huy Nguyen and Yixiao Zou, all with the National Institute of Aging, worked on this study.

Note: This story has been adapted from a news release issued by Ohio State University.


flintysooner said...

I have followed the research on the relationship between stress and health for some time.

It is good to have scientific proof that stress really does produce physiological change. Many of us suspected it long before there was research. I think this is just the beginning really.

But I've also been impressed that it is possible to do something about stress. As far as I know the proof is not there but there is a lot of anecdotal evidence.

I employ exercise and tapping and both are effective for me.

rilera said...

Flinty, I'm curious, can you explain what tapping is? Is this the same as EMDR?

flintysooner said...

I was first taught TFT (Thought Field Therapy) by a psychologist. He told me he had seen amazing results in his Vietnam Veterans' groups with it. Basically it is a technique of tapping certain points in a prescribed order. A fellow name Roger Callahan is considered the originator.

There is also EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) which is similar except the order of tapping is not considered important.

Some practitioners use various eye movement techniques but I'm uncertain if they are a part of EMDR.

It proved effective for me and I did not want to go the drug route so it was a good solution in my case.

A lot of people believe it is placebo effect but those who have benefited usually just say it worked for them and they don't care how.

It's simple to use and really can't hurt anything so not much to lose if it doesn't work.

I try to do EFT now about once per day. I've actually reduced my blood pressure with it.

~Betsy said...

Well, this certainly is concrete evidence to me as to why my dad died suddenly of cardiac arrest. Yes, he had bypass surgery 10 or 12 years beforehand, but he was the picture of health. He walked 5 miles a day, every day.

I'd love to learn more about this tapping. I am really beginning to feel the effects of nearly 2 years of 24/7 caregiving in addition to balancing a family and a job.

My husband has a glass of wine each evening to relieve his stress but 1) I have an addictive personality so I know better than to go this route and 2) wine makes me sleepy. By dinner, I am just beginning my second full shift!

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