Being Impatient Can Make You Age Faster, Study Shows

Impatient people may be more susceptible to cellular aging, although certain genetic factors can protect against this. www.BillionPhotos.com/Shutterstock

Don’t wish your life away, or you may end up getting what you wished for a little sooner than expected, according to the results of a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. By looking at genetic markers associated with cellular aging, researchers found that people who are impatient face a greater risk of biological decline than those who are a little more easy-going.

To conduct the study, researchers recruited 1,158 participants to take part in an experiment designed to measure their level of impatience, before conducting a genetic analysis of their blood cells in order to determine the length of their telomeres. These are sequences of DNA found at the ends of chromosomes that act as a kind of protective cap for the genetic information they contain.

Each time a cell divides, these telomeres become slightly eroded, eventually becoming so short that the cell itself is no longer able to continue dividing, entering a stage known as senescence. As such, telomere length provides a measure of cellular aging and is a reliable predictor of a person’s risk of disease and early mortality.

Knowing that the erosion of telomeres can be increased by a number of factors that can be brought on by stress, such as inflammation, the study authors sought to determine if impatience could contribute to this acceleration. More specifically, they wanted to know how telomere length is affected by delay discounting, which refers to a person’s tendency to devalue future outcomes relative to immediate desires, and has been associated with a range of negative traits such as substance abuse and physical inactivity.

Telomeres act as protective caps on the ends of chromosomes, but become shorter with each cell division. vitstudio/Shutterstock

To measure this, the study authors designed a range of behavioral economic tasks, such as asking participants to choose between receiving $100 immediately or a larger sum in 30 days. By raising and lowering this amount, the researchers were able to determine each participant’s minimum acceptable amount (MAA), meaning the lowest sum of money they would be willing to wait 30 days to receive.

Analyzing their data, the study authors found that those with a higher MAA tended to have shorter telomeres, indicating a negative correlation between delay discounting and cellular aging. Interestingly, this effect was far more pronounced in women than in men, leading the researchers to conclude that, on a cellular level, females may be more susceptible to aging as a result of psychological stress and impatience than males.

Though the researchers admit that they cannot say at this stage whether shorter telomere length causes impatience or impatience accelerates telomere erosion, they speculate that the latter is more likely. This is because they found no evidence that shortened telomere length affected participants’ ability to make rational decisions regarding longer-term financial investments.

However, the degree by which impatience accelerates telomere erosion also seems to be mitigated by certain genetic factors. For instance, since estrogen is known to act as an antioxidant that protects telomeres, the researchers decided to look for relationships between telomere length and an estrogen receptor gene called ESR2. In doing so, they found that those who carried a particular version of this gene were protected from the apparent effects of impatience.

Similarly, participants with a certain variation of the gene for the oxytocin receptor did not suffer from shortened telomeres even if they had high levels of impatience, indicating that the chemical messenger oxytocin – which is associated with decreased stress levels – may also have a protective effect.

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