STANFORD, CA (CBS) – As adults, we assume being under constant stress causes premature aging.

But does stress also cause aging in younger people?

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According to new research from Stanford and published in Molecular Psychiatry, the answer is yes.

Researchers say they looked at 97 healthy 10- to 14-year-old girls with either a maternal history of depression or no history of the disorder.

The girls had their cortisol levels measured before and after the study. Scientists also measure the subjects’ telomere length, which can shorten due to repeated stress and is associated with premature aging.

Interestingly, the high-risk girls had shorter telomeres — the difference was equal to about six years of biological aging.

“The results of this study indicate that healthy children at familial risk for depression have shorter telomeres than do their non-risk peers,” the scientists write. “Thus, telomere shortening appears to be an antecedent to, and potentially a risk factor for, the onset of depression.”

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Stanford psychologist Ian Gotlib, who co-authored the study, told Stanford News he’s surprised by the findings.

“I did not think that these girls would have shorter telomeres than their low-risk counterparts – they’re too young.”

Concerned parents should consider teaching their children stress-relief techniques and remember that exercise can delay telomere shortening, Gotlib says.

The researchers also say it is “critical to identify individuals, such as the children of depressed mothers in the present study, who might be vulnerable to experience telomere shortening” and to monitor them in future studies.

To read the full study, click here.

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