(By Fiona Macrae)
“Men who had been out of work for at least two of the three years before their blood was taken were more than twice as likely to have short telomeres as those who had been in continuous employment.“
It may not feel like it when the alarm clock goes off on a Monday morning but working keeps you young.
A study has linked unemployment with premature ageing. It is thought that the financial and emotional stress of being jobless makes its mark on the body’s DNA.
The scientists made the link by studying blood samples and unemployment records of more than 5,500 men and women aged 31.
The blood was used to zero in on and measure tiny structures called telomeres.
These are biological caps which are found at the ends of chromosomes and protect the DNA in them from damage, much like the caps on the ends of shoelaces prevent fraying.
As we get older, our telomeres get shorter and shorter, leading to DNA becoming damaged and raising the odds of age-related illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes and heart disease.
Shorter than average telomeres are seen as a sign of ill health and premature death.
The study revealed a clear link between long-term unemployment and telomere length.
Men who had been out of work for at least two of the three years before their blood was taken were more than twice as likely to have short telomeres as those who had been in continuous employment.
Importantly, the link held even when other factors associated with ageing, including illness, smoking, drinking and lack of exercise were taken into account.
Researcher Jessica Buxton, of Imperial College London, said this suggests that the financial and emotional stress associated with being out of work was to blame.
She said: ‘Shorter telomeres are linked to a higher risk of various age-related diseases and earlier death.
‘Stressful life experiences in childhood and adulthood have previously been linked to accelerated telomere shortening.
‘We have now shown that long-term unemployment may cause premature ageing too.’
Dr Buxton said that unemployment in early adulthood may be particularly damaging, as those trying to provide for a young family may find being jobless more stressful than those who are close to retirement.
Writing in the journal PLoS ONE, Dr Buxton said: ‘The life-stage of our participants raises public health concerns about the long-term effects of worklessness in early adulthood, especially concerning the internationally high rates of juvenile unemployment.’
Study co-author Dr Leena Ala-Mursula, of the University of Oulu in Finland, said: ‘These findings raise concerns about the long-term effects of joblessness in early adulthood.
‘Keeping people in work should be an essential part of general health promotion.’
In Britain, almost a million under-25s are unemployed and half of all young people who have graduated since the onset of the recession are in jobs that don’t require a degree.
The team didn’t find a link between unemployment and premature ageing in women but said this may be because not enough jobless females were studied.
It is also possible that men, who are traditionally viewed as being the breadwinners, are hit harder by unemployment than women.
The researchers want to do a second study of the same people, to find out if the damage to their telomeres was permanent.
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