Stress, Telomeres, and Psychopathology: Toward a Deeper Understanding of a Triad of Early Aging

Annu Rev Clin Psychol. 2018 May 7:14:371-397. doi: 10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-032816-045054. Epub 2018 Mar 1.


Telomeres play an important part in aging and show relationships to lifetime adversity, particularly childhood adversity. Meta-analyses demonstrate reliable associations between psychopathology (primarily depression) and shorter telomere length, but the nature of this relationship has not been fully understood. Here, we review and evaluate the evidence for impaired telomere biology as a consequence of psychopathology or as a contributing factor, and the important mediating roles of chronic psychological stress and impaired allostasis. There is evidence for a triadic relationship among stress, telomere shortening, and psychiatric disorders that is positively reinforcing and unfolds across the life course and, possibly, across generations. We review the role of genetics and biobehavioral responses that may contribute to shorter telomere length, as well as the neurobiological impact of impaired levels of telomerase. These complex interrelationships are important to elucidate because they have implications for mental and physical comorbidity and, potentially, for the prevention and treatment of depression.

Keywords: allostasis; depression; early life adversity; psychopathology; stress; telomerase; telomeres.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adverse Childhood Experiences*
  • Aging, Premature* / etiology
  • Aging, Premature* / genetics
  • Aging, Premature* / metabolism
  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Mental Disorders* / etiology
  • Mental Disorders* / genetics
  • Mental Disorders* / metabolism
  • Stress, Psychological* / complications
  • Stress, Psychological* / genetics
  • Stress, Psychological* / metabolism
  • Telomerase* / metabolism
  • Telomere Shortening* / genetics


  • Telomerase