The Effect of Stress on Telomere Length – Cellular Aging and its Buffers

By: Aiman Ali

In today’s fast-paced urbanized Canadian communities, stress is an unavoidable part of individuals’ lives and often difficult to overcome. Although certain circumstances and factors contribute to higher stress levels as well as varying forms of stress, it is inevitably embedded into individuals’ daily routines. This is especially evident within institutions such as universities and work places. Stress is a product of many psychosocial and environmental factors that go hand in hand with the varying lifestyles of individuals in relation to their personal, educational and/ or professional lives [1]. It also has many negative impacts on individuals’ health and well-being such as the shortening of telomere length which leads to cellular aging [1].

Telomeres are cap-like entities found on the chromosomal ends of cells which indicate a cell’s biological age [2]. During cell division, telomeres are not replicated completely which results in shorter telomeres with each proceeding replication—cellular aging— and eventually, cell death [2]. Daily stressors such as work-related hassles and other stressful life events can speed up the process of cellular aging due to telomere shortening [2, 3, 1]. Consequently, cellular aging leads to an increased risk towards diseases that are related to aging [3].

However, therapeutic methods and interventions, which can buffer the effects of stress on telomere shortening, have become a growing area of interest [1]. Interventions aim to improve the health and quality of life of individuals who are surrounded by stressful environments. Physical activity, which is said to improve cognitive flexibility, memory formation and recovery from stress, is one of the many buffers to stress and its adverse effects on telomere length [4]. In addition, meditation based yoga was observed to reduce depression, anxiety as well as psychological distress in an interventional study done on youth [5]. Mindfulness, “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment” is also an effective therapeutic shield from stress [6].

Brock University Professor, Paula Gardner has done phenomenal work with mindfulness and its benefits for students receiving higher education, as well as for professionals within work places. This anti-stress therapy has physical, psychological and social benefits for individuals including: heightened immunity; improvement of attention and memory; alleviation of depression; enhancement of relationships; as well as the development of compassion and altruism within an institutional community [6]. This buffer is now religiously practiced within classrooms at Brock because it was found that, “…engaging in mindfulness as colleagues and as educators both reinforces what we know and understand about supporting ourselves” [6].
In conclusion, as a community we have failed to recognize and counteract influencing factors that threaten the health and well-being of individuals. Stress, which is inevitably experienced by the majority of individuals, is also often the root cause of ill health. This is frequently overlooked by urbanized civilians who are lost in their never ending stressful routines. It is important to provide accessible therapeutic interventions such as mindfulness, within institutions such as schools, colleges, universities and work places. Interventions can buffer the negative effect of stress on telomere length—cellular aging and an increased risk towards age-related diseases. Thus, it is essential to incorporate such buffers into our communities to lower the prevalence and impact of stress on individuals’ health and well-being [7].


[1] Price, L., Kao, H., Burgers, D., Carpenter, L., and Tyrka, A. (2013). Telomeres and Early-Life Stress: An Overview. Biol Psychiatry, 73(1), 15-23. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2012.06.025

[2] Ahola, K., Siren, I. Kivinaki, M., et al. (2012). Work-Related Exhaustion and Telomere Length: A Population-Based Study. PLoS ONE, 7(7), 1-7. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0040186

[3] O’Donovan, A., Tomiyama, A., Lin, J., et al. (2012). Stress Appraisals and Cellular Aging: A key role for anticipatory threat in the relationship between psychological stress and telomere length. Brain, Behaviour, and Immunity, 26, 573-579. doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2012.01.007

[4] Puterman, E., Lin, J., Krauss, J., Blackburn, E., and Epel, E. (2014). Determinants of telomere attrition over 1 year in healthy older women: stress and health behaviours matter. Molecular Psychiatry, 20, 529-535. doi:10.1038/mp.2014.70

[5] Frank, J., Bidyut, B. and Schrobenhauser-Clonan, A. (2014). Effectiveness of a School-Based Yoga Program on Adolescent Mental Health, Stress Coping Strategies, and Attitudes Toward Violence: Findings from a High-Risk Sample. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 30, 29-49. Retrieved from

[6] Gardner, P. and Grose, J. Mindfulness in the Academy—Transforming our Work and Ourselves ‘One Moment at a Time’. Collected Essays on Learning and Teaching, 8, 35-46. Retrieved from

[7] Roohafza, H., Sadeghi, M., Sarraf-Zadegan, N., et al. (2016). Short Communication: Relation between stress and other lifestyle factors. Stress and Health, 23, 23-29. doi:10.1002/smi.1113

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