Chronic psychological stress is a risk factor for multiple diseases of aging. Accelerated cellular aging as indexed by short telomere length has emerged as a potential common biological mechanism linking various forms of psychological stress and diseases of aging. Stress appraisals determine the degree and type of biological stress responses and altered stress appraisals may be a common psychological mechanism linking psychological stress and diseases of aging. However, no previous studies have examined the relationship between stress appraisals and telomere length. We exposed chronically stressed female caregivers and non-caregiving controls (N=50; M age=62.14±6.10) to a standardized acute laboratory stressor and measured their anticipatory and retrospective threat and challenge appraisals of the stressor. We hypothesized that threat and challenge appraisals would be associated with shorter and longer telomere length respectively, and that chronic caregiving stress would influence telomere length through altered stress appraisals. Higher anticipatory threat appraisals were associated with shorter age-adjusted telomere length (β=-.32, p=.03), but challenge appraisals and retrospective threat appraisals showed no independent association with telomere length. Caregivers reported significantly higher anticipatory (β=-.36, p=.006) and retrospective (β=-.29, p=.03) threat appraisals than controls, but similar challenge appraisals. Although there was no significant main effect of caregiver status on telomere length, caregiving had a significant indirect effect on telomere length through anticipatory threat appraisals. Exaggerated anticipatory threat appraisals may be a common and modifiable psychological mechanism of psychological stress effects on cellular aging.
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