Q. How can someone assess whether her stress level is high enough to cause cell damage?
A. "Whether you have physical or psychological symptoms, most stress begins with certain thoughts — that you don’t have control over a situation, that you don’t have the skills or resources to overcome it. In other words, it’s the perception of stress, as well as your objective level of stress, that really counts. In our study, we measured life stress using a questionnaire created by Sheldon Cohen, known as the Perceived Stress Scale, which can be found on mindgarden.com/docs/PerceivedStressScale.pdf. In our study, women who had stress levels above 20 according to the scale were associated with telomere shortening."
Q. Is the damage reversible? (Please say yes!)
A. "Monitoring and minimizing your stress level seems more important than ever in light of our findings. We don’t know for certain if telomere damage can be totally reversed, but there is reason to be optimistic.
"There are test-tube findings showing that telomeres can lengthen with certain manipulations, such as reducing oxidative stress. For instance, a diet high in fruits and vegetables fights oxidative stress by countering it with antioxidants in the blood. Increasing telomerase is another option. Right now, our researchers are testing whether mindfulness-based meditative exercises can slow immune-cell aging. I’m hopeful that we’ll find ways to undo the damage that stress is causing us."
Q. What studies are you doing to expand upon your findings?
A. "We are now studying women caring for husbands with dementia. This adds in the factor of age. Our working hypothesis is that they may be even more vulnerable to the aging effects of chronic stress mainly because they’re older, and also because they are postmenopausal."
Q. How has your work changed your life?
A. "I started this study before I had a child. He’s now 3 years old and, ironically, he has a chronic health condition. Having a child has given me a tiny window into what that life is like, and I am often inspired by the parents’ optimism, hope, and persistence.
"Achieving a balanced life is my ongoing daily goal, but it’s a moving target. I take my close relationships, my gym membership, and my antioxidants (both from diet and supplements) much more seriously than I used to."