Telomere length, current perceived stress, and urinary stress hormones in women

Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2009 Feb;18(2):551-60. doi: 10.1158/1055-9965.EPI-08-0614. Epub 2009 Feb 3.


Telomeres are repetitive DNA sequences that cap and protect the ends of chromosomes; critically short telomeres may lead to cellular senescence or carcinogenic transformation. Previous findings suggest a link between psychosocial stress, shorter telomeres, and chronic disease risk. This cross-sectional study examined relative telomere length in relation to perceived stress and urinary stress hormones in a sample of participants (n = 647) in the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Sister Study, a cohort of women ages 35 to 74 years who have a sister with breast cancer. Average leukocyte telomere length was determined by quantitative PCR. Current stress was assessed using the Perceived Stress Scale and creatinine-adjusted neuroendocrine hormones in first morning urines. Linear regression models estimated differences in telomere length base pairs (bp) associated with stress measures adjusted for age, race, smoking, and obesity. Women with higher perceived stress had somewhat shorter telomeres [adjusted difference of -129bp for being at or above moderate stress levels; 95% confidence interval (CI), -292 to 33], but telomere length did not decrease monotonically with higher stress levels. Shorter telomeres were independently associated with increasing age (-27bp/year), obesity, and current smoking. Significant stress-related differences in telomere length were seen in women ages 55 years and older (-289bp; 95% CI, -519 to -59), those with recent major losses (-420bp; 95% CI, -814 to -27), and those with above-average urinary catecholamines (e.g., epinephrine: -484bp; 95% CI, -709 to -259). Although current perceived stress was only modestly associated with shorter telomeres in this broad sample of women, our findings suggest the effect of stress on telomere length may vary depending on neuroendocrine responsiveness, external stressors, and age.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Catecholamines / urine*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / urine*
  • Linear Models
  • Middle Aged
  • Prospective Studies
  • Risk Factors
  • Stress, Psychological / complications*
  • Telomere / ultrastructure*


  • Catecholamines
  • Hydrocortisone