According to a new study from the Netherlands, saying that anxiety is giving you gray hairs or taking years off your life might not be that far off. The researchers found that anxiety disorder patients had shorter telomeres than people without anxiety disorders, usually an indicator of aging. However, they also found that telomere length was normal in people whose anxiety disorders were in remission, suggesting that the cellular aging seen in current patients might be reversed with proper treatment.

The researchers, led by Josine Verhoeven of the VU University Amsterdam, examined data from more than 2,300 adults collected in the Netherlands Study of Depression and Anxiety. Of the subjects, 1,283 were currently being treated for an anxiety disorder, 459 had anxiety disorders that were considered to be in remission and 582 had no psychiatric disorders. A wide variety of anxiety disorders were present in the current patients, including generalized anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, panic disorder and social phobia.

After controlling for lifestyle and social factors, the researchers found that current anxiety disorder patients had significantly reduced telomere length compared to both the control group and the remission group. This may indicate that there is a period of temporary accelerated cell aging during the time that an anxiety disorder is active in the brain, but that it can be at least partially reversed by finding the therapy that will allow current anxiety patients' disorders to go into remission.

"Although the effect sizes were modest, the difference may indicate 3 to 5 years of accelerated aging for the current anxiety group, based on the estimated mean telomere shortening rate of 14 to 20 bp/year," the researchers said in their report. 

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