When we think of the DNA that makes up our chromosomes, we usually focus on our genes. But at the end of every chromosome in our body lies a long chain of repetitive DNA called a telomere, which acts as a protective cap. As we age, these caps get shorter. Now studies find that chronic pain and phobic anxiety are linked with shorter telomeres, which suggests that sufferers of these ailments may be aging prematurely and points to ways to reverse that process.

Time naturally shortens telomeres because whenever a cell divides, a portion of the telomere is not replicated. But telomere length can be reduced by other stressors, too, including depression, trauma and obesity. A recent Harvard University study adds anxiety to the list. People with high phobic anxiety, such as that characteristic of panic disorder and agoraphobia, had shorter telomeres, according to the paper published in PLOS ONE.

Shortened telomeres have been observed in several types of cancer, coronary heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and arthritis. Thus, telomeres offer insights into an individual's cumulative exposure to and ability to cope with stress—a measure of biological rather than chronological age, says Afton Hassett, a principal investigator at the University of Michigan's Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center. “Accelerated telomere shortening can signal vulnerability to disease, premature aging or even death,” she says.

In a study co-authored by Hassett that appeared in the October 2012 issue of the Journal of Pain, higher levels of chronic pain in women with fibromyalgia were strongly associated with shortened telomeres. In addition, participants with shorter telomeres had increased pain sensitivity and decreased gray matter volume in pain-processing areas of the brain. Fibromyalgia patients with high levels of both depression and pain had telomeres that looked approximately six years older than those of patients who had lower levels of depression and pain.

Researchers do not know whether the stress of living with chronic pain caused telomere shortening or whether telomere shortening, caused by other factors, made the participants more sensitive to pain. “Our feeling is that both possibilities are likely at work,” Hassett says. “Either way, our findings suggest that chronic pain is a more serious condition than is often presumed, with consequences extending into health and longevity.”

Fortunately, the findings of many other studies point to ways people can prevent and reduce shortened telomeres, including taking steps to reduce chronic stress and work-related exhaustion, improving diet (a December 2012 study found the Mediterranean diet to be protective), minimizing exposure to air pollution, exercising consistently, moderating alcohol consumption, and viewing stressful situations as challenges instead of threats.