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Cancer study shows chronic stress speeds telomere shortening

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Cancer stress

The ends of chromosomes called telomeres that deteriorate with aging are also found to shorten in response to the stress of cancer, according to a new investigation by researchers at the University of California, Irvine.

The findings, presented at the American Association for Cancer Research at the 102nd Annual Meeting 2011, suggest stress reduction could enhance health for cancer patients and has implications for understanding the mind-body connection related to health and longevity.

Telomeres are clusters of DNA that promote normal division of cells and protect genetic data. Each time a cell divides, telomeres get shorter. Researchers have linked longer telomeres to extended lifespan. Cancer cells divide more quickly than normal cells, accelerating the rate of telomere decline. The new findings show chronic stress also shortens the length of telomeres in cancer patients.

Less stress could improve cancer outcomes

Edward Nelson, M.D., division chief of hematology/oncology at the University explains cancer drives chronic stress in patients dealing with diagnosis and treatment.

Nelson says, "For this study, we wanted to know if chronic stress was associated with accelerated telomere shortening in cancer patients, and if a psychosocial intervention that modulates the stress response could also modulate telomere length."

The scientists took biological samples from 31 women diagnosed with cervical cancer for the study. The women were divided into two groups. Telephone counseling was provided to one group and the other received usual care.

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Samples were taken at the start of the study and after four months later to see if managing stress and emotions and addressing quality of life issues had a physical effect on the women.

The women with cancer engaged in six counseling sessions focused on relationships, sexual health, stress management and emotions and enhancing health and wellness.

The researchers found managing chronic stress that lead to improved quality of life was associated with changes in telomere length.

Nelson says, the study results are preliminary, but notes "there is no doubt that offering psychological services has the potential to improve quality of life and outcomes of patients.

After all, making patients feel better should be an outcome that a cancer team should want to have, but whether we can draw conclusions or make recommendations about the capacity of a behavioral intervention to modulate telomere length remains an open question."

The findings suggests chronic stress experienced by cancer patients can interfere with health outcomes. Improving quality of life and enhancing emotional well being was found to change telomere length and may have important implications for patients diagnosed with cancer.

"Chronic Stress of Cancer Causes Accelerated Telomere Shortening"

Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Updated 12/2/2014