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Telomeres are distinctive structures comprised of short, repetitive sequences of DNA located on the ends of chromosomes that prevent chromosomes from losing genes or sticking to other chromosomes during cell division. Telomere attrition, a biomarker of aging, is commonly associated with mental health conditions such as social anxiety disorder. Protection against telomere shortening is provided by activation of the enzymes telomerase and glutathione peroxidase. Findings from a new study suggest that cognitive behavior therapy reduces telomere attrition by activating these protective mechanisms.

Social anxiety disorder, also known as social phobia, is a mental health condition characterized by an intense, persistent fear of being judged, negatively evaluated, or rejected by others. Approximately 15 million people living in the United States have been diagnosed with social anxiety.

The study involved 46 people with social anxiety disorder. The participants' plasma levels of telomerase and glutathione peroxidase were measured before and nine weeks after receiving cognitive behavior therapy. The participants' anxiety was assessed via self-report.

Following cognitive behavioral therapy, the participants' social anxiety symptoms decreased significantly. Increases in telomerase and glutathione peroxidase activity were associated with reduced social anxiety, suggesting that cellular protective mechanisms may be involved in mediating anxiety symptoms and adding to a growing body of evidence that stress and anxiety accelerate biological aging.

Lifestyle factors such as exercise and meditation have also been shown to improve symptoms of anxiety and biomarkers of aging. Meditation, in particular, slows biological aging by slowing the shortening of telomeres. Studies by telomere experts Elizabeth Blackburn at UCSF and Elisa Epel show that meditation buffers the stress that shortens telomeres and activates the gene that encodes for telomerase.

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