Researchers at the University of California have uncovered evidence that suggests a stressful experience can dramatically affect how fast someone ages.
Findings collated from 64 studies show that early death is strongly linked to traumatic events.
Six of the studies looked specifically at the length of telomeres. These are the protective caps attached to the end of chromosomes. Their function is to stop DNA from becoming damaged.
With every cell replication, telomeres shorten. As a result they are considered a good measure of the ageing process.
The studies showed that stress had caused people’s telomeres to shorten. Many participants had shorter telomeres than expected for their given age.
Increased inflammation was also present – which is another indicator of premature ageing.
Furthermore, individuals who had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) showed a greater likelihood of developing age-related diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, ulcers, heart disease and dementia.
These are prime indications that they were ageing more quickly. Many were also more likely to die earlier.
PTSD is a psychological condition that can develop when someone experiences, or witnesses, a frightening or traumatic event.
Serious road accidents, long-term abuse, military combat and natural disasters are among the reasons why some one may develop PTSD.
The condition has already been found to increase the risk of health problems such as eating disorders, depression and substance abuse, but never before has it been linked with premature ageing.
As a result, the researchers claim PTSD should be classed as a biological illness – not just a mental illness.
Dr James Lohr, professor of psychiatry at the University of California said:
“These findings do not speak to whether accelerated ageing is specific to PTSD, but they do argue the need to re-conceptualise PTSD as something more than a mental illness.
“Our findings warrant a deeper look at this phenomenon and a more integrated medical-psychiatric approach to their care.”