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Determinants of telomere attrition over 1 year in healthy older women: stress and health behaviors matter

Abstract

Telomere length, a reliable predictor of disease pathogenesis, can be affected by genetics, chronic stress and health behaviors. Cross-sectionally, highly stressed postmenopausal women have shorter telomeres, but only if they are inactive. However, no studies have prospectively examined telomere length change over a short period, and if rate of attrition is affected by naturalistic factors such as stress and engagement in healthy behaviors, including diet, exercise, and sleep. Here we followed healthy women over 1 year to test if major stressors that occurred over the year predicted telomere shortening, and whether engaging in healthy behaviors during this period mitigates this effect. In 239 postmenopausal, non-smoking, disease-free women, accumulation of major life stressors across a 1-year period predicted telomere attrition over the same period—for every major life stressor that occurred during the year, there was a significantly greater decline in telomere length over the year of 35 bp (P<0.05). Yet, these effects were moderated by health behaviors (interaction B=0.19, P=0.04). Women who maintained relatively higher levels of health behaviors (1 s.d. above the mean) appeared to be protected when exposed to stress. This finding has implications for understanding malleability of telomere length, as well as expectations for possible intervention effects. This is the first study to identify predictors of telomere length change over the short period of a year.

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Acknowledgements

This study was supported by the Baumann Foundation and the Barney & Barbro Foundation. EP is supported by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health under award number R00 HL 109247. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health. We gratefully acknowledgement the support of Alanie Lazaro, Aric Prather, Samantha Schilf, Janet Tomiyama and Wanda Truong.

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Correspondence to E Puterman or E S Epel.

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Drs Jue Lin, Elissa Epel and Elizabeth Blackburn are cofounders of Telome Health, a diagnostic company measuring telomere biology.

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Puterman, E., Lin, J., Krauss, J. et al. Determinants of telomere attrition over 1 year in healthy older women: stress and health behaviors matter. Mol Psychiatry 20, 529–535 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/mp.2014.70

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