Is Stress Making You Old?

If there’s one thing I most often hear from Moms with special needs children it is, “I am always so tired…”  What if there was a ‘clinical’ reason for being so wiped out all.of.the.time?  What if you actually were a little older than your chronological age?


Common signs of aging include grey hair, wrinkles as well as an increase in age-related diseases, but what happens when the aging process accelerates faster than the years are passing? How could this happen? And, what if we could slow it down?


Recently, a team of researchers has found that severe emotional stress, like that caused by a divorce, the loss of a job, or caring for an ill parent or special needs child can impact a person’s age at the cellular level. The researchers compared the DNA (blood sample) of mothers caring for disabled children and found a striking trend. They calculated that the longer a woman had taken care of their child, the shorter their telomere length and the older their chronological age.


Compared to parents of typically developing children, parents of children with developmental disabilities are at higher risk for elevated stress over the lifespan of their child.


Molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn shared a Nobel Price for her research on telomeres. She was frustrated by the fact that this important information was not reaching the general public, so along with psychologist, Elissa Epel, she published a book aimed at a general audience.



In short… What the heck is a telomere?


A telomere can be found on the tip of a chromosome. Similar to the plastic piece on the tip of a shoelace – without this protective plastic, the shoelace will fray and unravel. The strands of DNA become damaged without the telomeres to protect them resulting in damaged cells that cannot do their jobs.


Shortened telomeres are also linked to a weakened immune system, decreased bone mineral density in women. Without the protection from telomeres, cells will age and die.


Using a simple blood test, the researchers found that blood cells from women who had spent many years caring for a disabled child were genetically about a decade older than those from peers who had much less caretaking experience.


Stress Can Impact Your Health At The Cellular Level


The study, which appears in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also suggests that the perception of being stressed can add years to a person’s biological age.’  Interestingly, some mothers who do not ‘feel’ as stressed are not as impacted at the cellular level.  More studies need to occur to establish why some people are more resilient than others.


GOOD NEWS – Telomeres Can Be Lengthened!


A study out of the University of California San Francisco shows that changes in diet, exercise, stress management and social support can result in longer telomeres.



Lifestyle Strategies to Lengthen Telomeres:


  • Diet

Foods high in vitamins are believed to protect cells and their telomeres from oxidative damage. A diet high in antioxidant foods, like berries and artichokes, can slow down aging and help prevent or reduce cell damage.

Nutrient dense whole foods, such as  ethically sourced animal proteins including omega 3 fatty acids from pastured beef, fish, seafood, flax and chia, as well as whole grains.


Boosting antioxidant-rich foods is key.



  • Exercise: Moderate aerobic exercise, walking 30 minutes per day for 6 days a week.  I know that could be easier said then done!  So, just make sure to move, even if it’s for 5 or 10 minutes several times a day.


  • Stress Management: Gentle yoga, breathing and/or meditation daily. No time for this either?  I get it…  Just make sure you breathe deep into your belly – this will help calm the nervous system and oxygenate the body.


  • Increased social support: Weekly support group sessions that include moderate exercise, stress management training and/or counseling.


Of course, as with everything lifestyle and health related, “We are all different…”  How each person manages stress is individual, so even though mothers with special needs children are at risk for negative outcomes, some report being positively transformed.  

For me, it’s been a combination – I burned out, (BIG TIME), but I’ve also experienced new growth and insights, not only professionally in the field of nutrition and mental health, but enhanced empathy, patience, social advocacy, and best of all gratitude.  



‘Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today,

and creates a vision for tomorrow.’ 

Melody Beattie

Here is an antioxidant rich recipe:

Energy Boosting Smoothie Bowl




Jaskelioff M, et al. Telomerase reactivation reverses tissue degeneration in aged telomerase-deficient mice. Nature. 2011;469:102-107.

Aubert G, Lansdorp PM. Telomeres and aging. Physiological Reviews. 2008;88:557–579.