Feb. 10, 2015 -- Anxiety disorders might contribute to a certain sign of aging, but treatment may reverse the process, new research suggests.
A Dutch study of more than 2,300 people looked at telomeres, which are the DNA at the end of chromosomes. Telomeres shorten with age, so they're considered a sign of cellular aging.
People with a current anxiety disorder had shorter telomeres than those without a mental health disorder and those with a history of an anxiety disorder, the study shows. Still, "cause and effect remain to be explored," says researcher Josine Verhoeven, a PhD candidate at VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam.
The difference in telomere length "may indicate 3 to 5 years of accelerated aging for the current-anxiety group," the researchers say.
The study is published online in the British Journal of Psychiatry.
The researchers took into account the participants' health and lifestyles, among other factors. The people with anxiety disorders had conditions including generalized anxiety disorder, social phobia, agoraphobia, and panic disorder with and without agoraphobia.
Telomere length wasn't significantly different in the group with a history of anxiety disorders and those without an anxiety disorder. One difference stood out among people who had a history of an anxiety disorder, though: Those whose symptoms had improved for less than 10 years had shorter telomeres than those who'd been better for 10 years or longer. This suggests that the aging process of cells is in part reversible, the researchers say.
Shorter telomeres might be a result of problems with the body’s stress hormones, which is seen in people with anxiety disorders.
Recovering from an anxiety disorder could improve how the body responds to stress.
More research is needed, the study authors say.
Verhoven says positive habits, like getting more exercise, seem to be good for telomere length in healthy people.