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HealthWatch: Bay Area Scientists Develop DNA Stress Test

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DNA. (AP)

DNA. (AP)

CBS SF Bay (con't)

Affordable Care Act Updates: CBSSanFrancisco.com/ACA

Health News & Information: CBSSanFrancisco.com/Health

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS 5) – Bay Area scientists have come up with a test that might turn out to be as important as getting a cholesterol checkup, or even taking your blood pressure.

The simple test looks at your DNA and tells you if you may have a health concern, especially if you’re stressed out.

It’s a test that interests working mom Lisa Aliferis. Her days are jam-packed.

She gets up early, gets her two kids up “feed ‘em breakfast, get ‘em dressed, get ‘em out the door, get them to school and then I go to work”, said Aliferis.

CBS 5 HealthWatch followed Aliferis one weekend morning and witnessed the whirlwind firsthand. On this day, both her children had a soccer game at the same time but in different fields. She and her husband John each took a kid, and steered towards the game.

“Stress is a constant part of my life,” said Aliferis, “And mostly it plays out in this feeling of always having to be somewhere exactly on time and having very little leeway.”

That makes the working mom wonder if all this stress is taking a toll on her health. As early as this fall, she may be able to find out in the privacy of her doctor’s office.

Scientists believe they can identify and help treat problems caused by stress by taking a bit of your blood – even a little saliva – and, then looking carefully at a critical part of your DNA. That critical part is called a telomere.

Telomeres are the caps at the end of chromosomes that protect your DNA.

Dr. Calvin Harley is with Telome Health of Menlo Park. His company has developed a test that can accurately measure the length of an individual’s telomeres.

CBS 5 HealthWatch asked him why length is important enough to measure. Harley replied, “Very short telomeres are what are behind a lot of different age related diseases.”

Telomeres naturally shorten as we get older. But chronic stress can speed up the shortening. And shortened telomeres can put you at a higher risk of cancer, heart disease, even dementia.

The good news is that telomeres are the one part of your DNA that you can actually change, according to the scientists.

“They can shrink or increase in length depending upon your life style and risk exposures,” said Harley.

This test is currently used only in research, but the scientists believe if physicians can prescribe the test, like a cholesterol test, that their patients can get an annual telomere checkup.

Dan Hunt is the interim CEO with Telome Health. “If you have very short telomere length and or you monitor your telomere length and they’re rapid reductions in the telomeres, it may be indicative there’s a health problem,” Hunt said.

Your doctor may then prescribe a better diet, exercise, even stress reduction – all which may slow down the shortening of your telomeres, or even boost their length.

Hunt said research shows that a change may occur in as little as four months. Telome Health hopes to get the test certified later this year. Each sample that gets tested may cost about $200.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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