Cognitive behavioral therapy may protect against aging at a cellular level

Created date

February 27th, 2020
An older man sits in a chair, talking to a therapist.

Cognitive behavioral therapy involves recognizing unhealthy ways of thinking in stressful situations and learning healthy ways to cope. It's been found to be helpful for many problems such as depression, anxiety, and other psychological issues

Mental illness is known to be associated with a greater risk of developing other health conditions earlier in life, including high blood pressure and diabetes. Reasons for this are unclear, but there is some speculation that mental health disorders may lead to increased aging processes in the body’s cells.  

These aging processes can be measured by examining a cell’s DNA—specifically short sections of DNA that cap off the ends of chromosomes and protect the cells (picture the hard ends on shoelaces). These caps, called telomeres, become shorter over the years every time a cell divides.

Telomeres have some protection, though, in the form of enzymes that shield them from damage and help to rebuild them. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Researchers from the Department of Clinical Neuroscience at Karolinska Institute in Sweden wanted to find out if treatment for mental illness could benefit cells by changing telomeres or the enzymes that affect them. They examined a group of subjects who were treated with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for social anxiety disorder. CBT involves recognizing unhealthy ways of thinking and acting in stressful situations and learning healthy ways to cope. It has been found to be helpful for many problems such as depression, anxiety, addiction, eating disorders, and many other psychological issues. 

The study subjects participated in CBT for nine weeks, and the researchers took blood samples at the beginning and end of the study.

After the nine-week period, the study subjects showed significant improvement in their social anxiety symptoms. In addition, the activity of telomere-protecting enzymes increased in direct relation to how much the subjects improved. The length of the telomeres did not change, but that was expected by the researchers since it takes much longer than nine weeks for telomere length to noticeably change. 

The researchers say this study shows a promising link between mental illness treatment and aging at the cellular level, but more studies are needed to establish a cause-and-effect relationship.