Have you ever wondered what exactly causes people to age? Think for a second about what’s inside your body that signals your skin to start wrinkling and what tells your hair to turn gray.
Well, that particular thing in your body is a compound structure called telomeres and science says you have influence over it and can use it t lengthen your life.
What Are Telomeres?
Our bodies are made up of trillions of cells. Inside the nucleus of each cell are chromosomes that carry our genetic information in the form of genes.
Now telomeres are stretches of DNA at the end of chromosomes. They protect genetic data and they allow cells to successfully divide. But before that happens, the cell makes copies of its chromosomes so that when it splits, both new cells will have identical genetic material. Now every time cells split, the telomere DNA gets worn down and is shortened.
Think of it like those plastic tips on the ends on your shoe lace. These plastic tips (or telomeres) protect your shoe laces (or chromosomes) from fraying and sticking to each other but as cells divide, they eventually get worn down. Along with that process is that they get too short and when they can’t protect the chromosome anymore, they send a signal to the cell to stop dividing.
Now you’re probably wondering how telomeres relate to aging at all.
Relationship Between Telomeres and Aging
Geneticist Richard Cawthon and his colleagues at the University of Utah found that shorter telomeres are associated with shorter lives. They found that people older than 60 with short telomeres were three times more likely to die from heart disease and eight times from an infectious disease.
Another comprehensive study of telomeres by Elizabeth Blackburn verified this finding and she explained in her TED talk video that “It’s the over shortening of telomeres that leads us to feel and see signs of aging. My skin cells start to die and I start to see fine lines and wrinkles; hair pigment cells die and you start to see gray hair; immune cells die, you increase your risk of getting sick.”
But…Aging Doesn’t Have to Be Guaranteed!
Blackburn studied pond scum, and made a surprising discovery: pond scums never get old and die! When she looked at their telomeres, they weren’t shortening as time went on. In fact, they even grew longer at times. She then decided to run a series of experiments and what she learned is that they have an enzyme that she named “telomerase” that could replenish telomeres and make them longer.
She joked, “Now surely all you need is a bottle of grade A organic fair trade telomerase and you’ll be free of aging, right?” “Well, not so fast”, she adds.
Blackburn found that for humans, nudging up telomerase does decrease risks of some diseases but it also increases the risks of certain cancers and she says, “We don’t want that… but there is something for us humans in the story of telomeres and their maintenance.”
The Key to Reversing Aging: Stress
She discovered that there’s a connection between chronic stress and telomere length. She explains, “The more chronic stress you’re under, the shorter your telomeres, meaning the more likely you were to fall victim to an early disease and perhaps untimely death. Our findings meant that people’s life events and the way we respond to these events can change how you maintain your telomeres.”
In other words, chronic stress decreases your health span. Blackburn defines health span as “the number of years of your life when you’re free of diseases, you’re healthy, you’re productive, you’re zestfully enjoying life.”
But this particular finding doesn’t surprise us at all! We all know that stress can adversely affect our health. In fact, here is an article on the negative effects of stress and what it does your body. Also, there are different ways we manage stress. Here’s an article on stress relief tips and how to overcome stress naturally.
How to Trick Stress and Live Longer
Blackburn’s finding didn’t end there. She also noticed that there some people who maintained long telomeres even while they were under great stress for years.
What she then realized is that those people were resilient to stress. They saw certain circumstances not as threats but as challenges. At this point, she realized that human attitude matters and that resilience to stress can actually lengthen life with its pattern of long telomeres.
She explains, “if you see something stressful as a challenge to be tackled, then blood flows to your heart and to your brain and you experience brief but energizing spikes of cortisol and thanks to that habitual ‘bring it on’ attitude, your telomeres will do just fine.”
When Blackburn shared her discoveries, other research data from other scientists began to pour in and they further solidified her findings that chronic stress is bad for telomeres.
So, if you want to live longer, learn to approach stress in a “bring it on” attitude instead of seeing it as a threat. That way, you maintain the length of your telomeres and that also improves your overall health span.
Here’s the full TED talk video of Elizabeth Blackburn sharing her findings about telomeres.