Religious Involvement May Influence Telomere Length of Chromosomes

Researchers at Duke University in North Carolina and Glendale Medical Center in Los Angeles, California, surveyed 251 stressed caregivers of family members with severe dementia or other disabling neurological or medical illnesses. The purpose was to assess level of religious involvement and, for the first time, examine the relationship with telomere length (TL).

Telomeres are located at the ends of the chromosomes, and shorten each time the cell divides. The telomere has become increasingly known as the cell’s “biological clock” predicting its lifespan. In brief, psychological and social stress increase inflammation in the body, which speeds the rate of telomere shortening. When telomeres shorten to a critical length, cells can no longer divide without affecting genomic stability, resulting in organ degeneration and death.

If religious involvement, which lowers caregiver stress, were linked to TL, then this would provide a biological mechanism to explain why religious people live longer.

In the present study, religious involvement was measured using a 41-item scale assessing religious attendance, private religious activity, intrnsic religiosity, religious commitment, religious support, and religious coping. Depressive symptoms, caregiver stress, perceived stress, and both caregiver and cared-for person physical health were assessed using standard measures.

TL in blood leukocytes was measured at Elizabeth Blackburn’s lab, University of California, San Francisco (Blackburn won the Nobel prize in Medicine in 2008 for work in this area).

Results: Analyses revealed a U-shaped relationship between religiosity and TL. among the 90% of caregivers who were at least somewhat religious, religiosity was significantly and positively related to TL. Researchers concluded that, “While nonreligious caregivers have relatively long telomeres, we found a positive relationship between religiosity and TL among those who are at least somewhat religious.”

This is the first study to demonstrate a relationship between religious involvement and telomere length. Given that the vast majority of U.S. family caregivers of those with advanced dementia or other severe disabilities are “at least somewhat religious, the present results are relevant to most of this population. Further research (especially prospective studies) are needed to replicate this finding and determine if the relationship is causal.

Koenig HG, Nelson B, Shaw SF, Saxena S, Cohen HJ (2016). Religious involvement and telomere length in women family caregivers. Journal of Nervous & Mental Disease 204(1):36-42