MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Linda E. Carlson, Ph.D., R.Psych.
Enbridge Research Chair in Psychosocial Oncology
Alberta Innovates-Health Solutions Health Scholar
Professor, Department of Oncology, Faculty of Medicine
Adjunct Professor, Department of Psychology, Faculty of Arts
University of Calgary Clinical Psychologist, Director of Research
Department of Psychosocial Resources
Medical Research: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?
Dr. Carlson: We have been investigating the effects of cancer support programs including the two in this study, Mindfulness-based cancer recovery, an 8-week group program in which patients learn mindfulness meditation and gentle yoga, and supportive-expressive therapy, a 12-week program where patients share difficult emotions in a supportive group environment. We know there is psychological benefit of these programs, but what about effects in the body?
Telomeres are the protective caps on the end of chromosomes (like the tips on shoelaces) that protect them from damage and degredation. They are longest when we are young and naturally get shorter as we age. Shorter telomere’s are associated with higher risk for many diseases, including cancer, and people with higher stress levels tend to have shorter telomeres.
This is the first study to investigate whether short psychosocial interventions can affect telomere length in cancer pateints. We randomly assigned breast cancer survivors with cancer-related distress, feelings such as anxiety, fear, worry, and depression, to either mindfulness-based cancer recovery, supportive expressive therapy or a control group that just had a minimal intervention. We took blood samples before and after the groups (or at equal time points for those in the control condition) and measured the length of the telomeres.
Women in both of the active support groups maintained the length of their telomeres over time, but the telomere length of women in the control group became shorter. This is the first controlled study to show that short-term interventions can actually have some effect on cellular aging in the telomeres.