Systematic review of the association between chronic social stress and telomere length: A life course perspective

Ageing Res Rev. 2016 Mar;26:37-52. doi: 10.1016/j.arr.2015.12.006. Epub 2015 Dec 28.


Our aim was to examine whether chronic social stress is associated with telomere length throughout the life course, following our protocol published in 2014. Structured searches were conducted in MEDLINE (PubMed interface), EMBASE (OVID interface), Cochrane Central (OVID interface) and grey from their start date onwards. Reference lists of retrieved citations were hand searched for relevant studies. Eighteen studies published until May 1, 2015 investigating the association between chronic social stress (as defined by poverty, exposure to violence, or family caregiving) and telomere length in healthy or diseased adults and children were independently selected by 2 reviewers. Sixteen of those studies were cross-sectional and two had a longitudinal design. Studies differed in type of stress exposure, method to measure telomere length and cell type. As meta-analysis could not be conducted, the data were synthesized as a narrative review. Based on this comprehensive review, chronic social stress accompanies telomere shortening in both early and adult exposures, with most eligible studies showing a significant relationship. We discuss the significance of chronic stress of social origin and the potential for social interventions through public policies and we recommend methodological improvements that would allow for future meta-analysis.

Keywords: Caregiving; Chronic stress; Life course epidemiology; Poverty; Telomere length; Violence.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Child
  • Family Health*
  • Humans
  • Poverty / psychology*
  • Social Environment
  • Social Support
  • Stress, Psychological* / etiology
  • Stress, Psychological* / physiopathology
  • Telomere Homeostasis / physiology
  • Telomere Shortening*
  • Violence / psychology*