High Sensitivity is Associated with Accelerated Biological Aging
7th June 2023 - By Armin Jentsch, Frances Hoferichter
About the authors
Armin Jentsch is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oslo and received his PhD in Education from the University of Hamburg in 2019. His interests involve (but are not limited to) teachers’ as well as students’ wellbeing, teaching quality, and research methodology.
Frances Hoferichter is a senior researcher at the University of Greifswald. Her research interests include student and teacher well-being, socio-emotional relationships in the school context, and mentoring in teacher education as well as neuroscientific and biophysiological processes.
This study investigated the association between high sensitivity and telomere length as a biomarker of biological aging. We recruited 82 adolescents. Results show that sensitivity is negatively correlated with telomere length. More specifically, students with Low Sensory Threshold, one component of sensitivity, tend to have shorter telomeres, which indicates accelerated biological aging.
Aron and Aron (1) were the first to introduce the concept of high sensitivity which is a personality trait that describes people who react more strongly to internal or external stimuli.
Interestingly, they discovered that high sensitivity is not the same as introversion or neuroticism. Kagan and colleagues (2) suggest that up to 20% of the population could be highly sensitive.
Unfortunately, highly sensitive people also have a higher probability to experience negative emotions (3), including stress and burnout (4). Studies suggest that high sensitivity could be associated with many health issues that are caused by stress.
Importantly, frequent exposure to stressful experiences may increase biological aging which can be measured with telomeres. Telomeres are DNA sections which shorten naturally with increasing age (5). When individuals perceive high amounts of stress, telomeres can shorten more quickly (6). This makes telomere length an indicator of biological age (7) which has been found to predict illness and even mortality (8).
Telomere length has also been linked to pessimism and neuroticism (9) which suggests it could also be related to sensitivity. Since there is a limited number of studies investigating the relationship between high sensitivity and biological aging, we conducted a study to explore a potential association. Our assumption was that highly sensitive students are more likely to exhibit shorter telomeres (i.e., show increased biological aging).
The sample analyzed in this study comes from a large research project that took place in the federal state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Germany. Eleven schools and more than 700 students participated in the project, but for the present study we selected a random subsample of 82 healthy adolescents.
Half of the participants were female, and they were aged 13—16 years. Most of the students had a high socioeconomic background.
Perceived stress and high sensitivity were assessed with established self-reported measures (Perceived Stress Scale [PSS-10], and the Highly Sensitive Person Scale, [HSP]).
Telomere lengths were assessed in saliva samples by means of quantitative PCR (q-PCR) at the Research Institute of Nutrition and Translational Research in Metabolism (NUTRIM), University of Maastricht, Netherlands.
We found that the stress that students perceived within the last month before the study was conducted was negatively related to telomere length. The effect size was small to moderate.
As expected, high sensitivity was also negatively correlated with telomere length. In a more detailed analysis we found that of the three facets of high sensitivity that were investigated in this study (i.e. Ease of Excitation, Low Sensory Threshold, Aesthetic Sensitivity), only Low Sensory Threshold was associated with reduced telomere length. Ease of Excitation and Aesthetic Sensitivity showed no association with telomere length whatsoever.
Importantly, in our analysis, we ensured that neither sex, socioeconomic status, age, nor BMI influenced the relation between high sensitivity and telomere length in students.
Our study was concerned with how high sensitivity and biological age were related in students. We found a negative correlation between high sensitivity and telomere length, which in more detail turned out to primarily reflect the sensitivity component of Low Sensory Threshold.
This indicates that individuals who tend to perceive their environment more intensively and are unpleasantly aroused by loud music or bright light tend to exhibit shorter telomeres, indicating accelerated biological aging. The findings were not dependent on stress students might have perceived shortly before participating in the study.
However, as personality traits such as neuroticism have been linked to high sensitivity and shorter telomere length, our findings may also underline that individuals with an innate higher stress arousal exhibit accelerated biological aging (9). In addition, high sensitivity could be associated with health-harming behavior, which in turn is related to telomere shortening (5). Further longitudinal studies (9) are necessary to shed light on the findings presented here.
- Aron, E. N. & Aron, A. (1997). Sensory-processing sensitivity and its relation to introversion and emotionality. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 73, 345-368.
- Kagan, J., Snidman, N., Arcus, D., & Reznick, J. S. (1994). Galen’s prophecy: Temperament in human nature. Basic Books.
- Aron, E. N., Aron, A., & Davies, K. M. (2005). Adult shyness: the interaction of temperamental sensitivity and an adverse childhood environment. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 181-197.
- Hoferichter, F., Kulakow, S., & Hufenbach, M. C. (2021). Support from parents, peers, and teachers is differently associated with Middle School students’ well-being. Frontiers in Psychology, 12(5446). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.758226
- Mather, K. A., Jorm, A. F., Parslow, R. A., & Christensen, H. (2011). Is telomere length a biomarker of aging? A review. The journals of gerontology. Series A, Biological sciences and medical sciences, 66, 202-213.
- Lin, J. & Epel, E. (2022). Stress and telomere shortening: Insights from cellular mechanisms. Ageing Research Reviews, 73, 101507.
- Blackburn, E. H. (2005). Telomeres and telomerase: their mechanisms of action and the effects of altering their functions. FEBS Letters, 579(4), 859-862.
- Rentscher, K. E., Carroll, J. E., & Mitchell, C. (2020). Psychosocial Stressors and Telomere Length: A Current Review of the Science. Annual Review of Public Health, 41, 223-245.
- van Ockenburg, S. L., de Jonge, P., van der Harst, P., Ormel, J., & Rosmalen, J. G. (2014). Does neurocitism make you old? Prospective associations between neuroticism and leukocyte telomere length. Psychological Medicine, 44, 723-729.