Psychology Magazine

Impatience, Aging, and Leukocyte Telomere Length.

By Deric Bownds @DericBownds

Yim et al. note in young college volunteers a correlation between a chemical marker of biological aging (leukocyte telomere length, abbr. LTL) and impatience (delay discounting). The wording of the abstract flirts with conflating correlations with causes, and directions of implied causes is not clear - does impatience causes cellular aging or does cellular aging cause impatience? People with shorter telomeres might be more impatient because they are not going to be around as long? (Or, do we have a correlation as spurious as that noted between mortgage loan rates and sunspot frequency in the 1950's? Let the reader decide... ).

This paper makes a singular contribution to understanding the association between biological aging indexed by leukocyte telomeres length (LTL) and delay discounting measured in an incentivized behavioral economic task. In a large group of young, healthy undergraduates, steeper delay discounting is significantly associated with shorter LTL, while controlling for risk attitude and health-related behaviors. Notably, we found that delay discounting and risk attitude-two fundamental determinants of economic preferences-are independently associated with LTL. Moreover, for the first time to our knowledge, the effects of well-studied oxytocin and estrogen receptor polymorphisms are shown to specifically moderate the impact of impatience on LTL. Our work suggests a path to integrate behavioral economic methodology to supposed biological mechanisms associated with health outcomes.
In a graying world, there is an increasing interest in correlates of aging, especially those found in early life. Leukocyte telomere length (LTL) is an emerging marker of aging at the cellular level, but little is known regarding its link with poor decision making that often entails being overly impatient. Here we investigate the relationship between LTL and the degree of impatience, which is measured in the laboratory using an incentivized delay discounting task. In a sample of 1,158 Han Chinese undergraduates, we observe that steeper delay discounting, indexing higher degree of impatience, is negatively associated with LTL. The relationship is robust after controlling for health-related variables, as well as risk attitude-another important determinant of decision making. LTL in females is more sensitive to impatience than in males. We then asked if genes possibly modulate the effect of impatient behavior on LTL. The oxytocin receptor gene (OXTR) polymorphism rs53576, which has figured prominently in investigations of social cognition and psychological resources, and the estrogen receptor β gene (ESR2) polymorphism rs2978381, one of two gonadal sex hormone genes, significantly mitigate the negative effect of impatience on cellular aging in females. The current results contribute to understanding the relationship between preferences in decision making, particularly impatience, and cellular aging, for the first time to our knowledge. Notably, oxytocin and estrogen receptor polymorphisms temper accelerated cellular aging in young females who tend to make impatient choices.

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