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Healthy Habits May Slow Cellular Signs of Aging

Pay attention to your lifestyle during stressful times, researcher says

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To see whether a healthy lifestyle can combat the effects of stress, researchers followed 239 post-menopausal, nonsmoking women for one year. The findings are published July 29 in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

The women provided blood samples at the beginning and the end of the year for telomere measurement. They underwent periodic reviews of their physical activity, diet and sleep.

At the end, the women also reported on stressful events that occurred during the year. Researchers focused on truly stressful life events, such as becoming a caregiver to a sick relative, losing a house or a job, or having someone dear to them die, Puterman said.

The researchers found that these major stress events caused a significantly greater decline in telomere lengths for women who halfheartedly engaged in healthy behaviors.

But the same levels of stress caused no greater shortening in the telomeres of women who stayed active, ate healthily and slept well.

The study shows the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle during challenging periods in your life, Puterman and Speicher said.

"If we are in stressful situations, physical activity, sleep and nutrition are of really great importance to keep our bodies in shape and stay healthy," Speicher said. "With this study we see it on the genetic level now."

The study also adds to our understanding of how healthy living affects the aging process, Puterman said.

"The same type of person who eats well and still exercises is the same sort of person who isn't aging much," he said. "As we get deeper and deeper into the cell, we're getting more information about why and what's happening at the genetic level."

The study doesn't actually prove a cause-and-effect relationship between healthy habits and longer telomeres, however. The next step will be randomized trials to see whether exercise can be used to slow cellular aging for people facing ongoing life stress, such as those serving as caregivers to Alzheimer's patients.

"We're going to look to see whether we can shift their aging processes within their cells, as well as depression levels and stress levels and that sort of thing," Puterman said.

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