Aging: The Stress Factor

Stress, Attitudes Affect DNA, Aging Rates, One Way Or The Other

For the first time, research shows that stress speeds the aging process by harming DNA. But Scott Pelley says there's a silver lining in that seemingly dark cloud: We have a say in the stress-aging relationship. We can offset the impact of stress.

Did you ever know someone under so much stress they aged right before your eyes?

It seems to happen to presidents after a term or two, and maybe you've noticed something similar in your own mirror.

Now, for the first time, a medical study has proven what we've all suspected: Stress speeds up aging.

And CBS News Correspondent Scott Pelley reports it does this by reaching all the way down into your cells and damaging your DNA. In a sense, chaos is crunching your chromosomes.

But don't stress out yet. Pelley points out that there is a way to prevent the damage.

It was discovered last November in a project that followed women with real-life stress. It then peered inside to see their cells aging before their time.

When the researchers were looking for women to study, Eileen Attridge appeared to be the perfect subject.

The study needed 30 volunteers suffering the same kind of constant aggravation. So, naturally, they picked mothers but, more than that, mothers like Eileen, who all care for chronically ill children. Her daughter, 12-year-old Rosie, is autistic.

Dr. Elissa Epel headed the stress study, at the University of California, San Francisco.

"I chose the mothers," Epel told Pelley, "because they tend to be a group that's under chronic stress at a very young age. … But they're young and healthy, so it gives us an opportunity to examine what chronic stress looks like in healthy people."

The first thing Epel had to do was measure how each mom coped with stress. Were they the kind who held up or the kind who fell apart? Epel designed a test that pushes their anxiety buttons. It measured their heart rates, blood pressure and perspiration rates.

Epel explained its premise, namely that, "The unpredictability and ambiguity, not knowing what you're gonna have to do, is stressful."

Such as solving a difficult math problem in front of a stern professor.

The test showed how stress affected the moms physically. But Epel also needed to know how it tortured them mentally. How well did each mom cope while caring for a sick child?

To see how they felt about anxiety, Epel had each mother answer a series of questions.

She says a psychologist took "everything we know about stress, and what's stressful, and put it into one questionnaire."

Pelley tried his hand at the questionnaire, as he put it, against his better judgment.