Telomeres are compared to the plastic tabs on the end of your shoelaces that keep your shoelaces from unraveling. Telomeres are protective sheaths of proteins at the ends of your chromosomes that keep your chromosomes from unraveling when they replicate. Maintaining our telomeres protects our chromosomes, allowing them to continue to replicate and be functional throughout our lifespan. Telomeres will shorten over time; telomerase is the enzyme that replenishes our telomeres. Longer telomeres = more cell health. Many, many lifestyle choices we make increase the telomerase in our cells, thus replenishing our telomeres and protecting our chromosomes as we age.
Telomeres, and the lifestyle choices we can make to protect them, are now understood to be a key factor in staying active and healthy as we age, keeping our chromosomes, and thus every cell in our body, in a vital and active health span, pushing off the effects of aging as we move through our lifespan, delaying a premature disease span of heart disease, respiratory disease, cancer and stroke.
Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, the molecular biologist who won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine for her discovery of the role of telomeres and telomerase in the aging process, and Elissa Epel, PhD, health psychologist and pioneer researcher in the impact of stress on telomeres, have given us the gift of presenting their paradigm-shifting discoveries in a most readable and understandable The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer. The science is solid; the data are interpreted in ways that are immediately relevant to the lifestyle choices we can make day to day. And the authors provide many, many practical suggestions for protecting your telomeres, thus protecting your health and your vitality for years and years to come.
Invest in your health, either by reading this newsletter or reading the book. The tools offered are practical and powerful, and very, very doable. May they help you thrive as you age.
Bottom line: Our bodies age because our cells age, and aging cells can cause a vast array of diseases of aging. Our telomeres slow the aging process of our cells, thus slowing the aging (and eventually disease) process in general. Protecting our telomeres, replenishing them through telomerase, protects our cells from aging and disease, thus protecting our health over the decades of a long life.
Pretty cool, that we now know that and know that we can do a lot about that.
The story of the initial research discovering the role of telomeres and telomerase in the aging process, (studying one-celled tetrahymena that live in pond scum) and the hundreds of subsequent studies identifying lifestyle choices we humans can make to keep our telomerase in ready supply and our telomeres healthy, and thus ourselves healthy, are well-told and honestly inspiring to read.
I’m focusing here on the recommended lifestyle choices, many of which will be familiar to readers of this newsletter – sleep, exercise, focused attention, mindful movement, adopting an optimistic attitude, resourcing with loving relationships, living in a safe neighborhood – because these recommendations are just so practical and so powerful, helping you thrive as you age. (See Exercises to Practice)
The introduction to Part II: Your Cells Are Listening to Your Thoughts, offers a quick but useful self-assessment of your stress reactivity and stress resilience, some of which have been linked to telomere length (thus health). Briefly, you think of a situation that bothers you a great deal and that is ongoing in your life. (Or your most recent difficult problem.) Then you answer questions such as:
* When you think about dealing with this situation, how much do you feel hope and confidence vs. feelings of fear and anxiety?
* Do you feel you have whatever it takes to cope effectively with this situation?
* How much are you caught up in repetitive thoughts about this situation?
* How much do you avoid thinking about the situation or try not to express negative emotions?
* How much does this situation make you feel bad about yourself?
* How much do you think about this situation in a positive way, seeing some good that could come from it, or telling yourself statements that feel comforting or helpful, such as that you are doing the best you can?
The scoring indicates stress resilience – good for your telomeres, or stress reactivity, which could endanger your telomeres. The authors then explore the stress-short telomere-immune system connection and then offer ways to shift from harmful stress responses (“bad” stress, “threat” stress) to helpful ones (“good” stress, “challenge” stress). (See Exercises to Practice: Distancing from Ego Threat Stress)
Chapter Five, “Mind Your Telomeres: Negative Thinking, Resilient Thinking” explores negative thought patterns we may have that will affect the health of our telomeres and thus our health in general. Patterns such as cynical hostility, pessimism, mind-wandering, multi-tasking, rumination, and thought suppression. Here’s an excerpt about thought suppression:
“We know that chronic stress can shorten telomeres, but if we try to manage our stressful thoughts by sinking the bad thoughts into the deepest waters of our subconscious, it may backfire. The chronically stressed brain’s resources are already taxed (we call this cognitive load) making it even hard to successfully suppress thoughts. Instead of less stress we get more….
Take a moment to absorb the links here. We push away our bad feelings, which inevitably roar back, and then we feel bad, and then we feel bad about feeling bad. That additional layer of negative judgement – the layer of feeling bad about feeling bad, can be like a heavy blanket that smothers that last bit of energy you had available for coping. In short; thought suppression is a royal road to chronic stress arousal and depression, both of which shorten your telomeres.”
The suggestions the authors offer to counter these negative thought patterns include many very familiar to readers of this newsletter: mindful awareness of negative patterns, self-compassion for those patterns, managing the inner critic (the “eager assistant”), cultivating joy, finding a new purpose in life. An excerpt about conscientiousness:
“There’s one personality train that appears to be good for telomeres: conscientiousness. Conscientious people are organized, persistent, and task oriented; they work hard toward long-term goals, and their telomeres tend to be longer. This finding is important, because conscientiousness is the personality trait that is the most consistent predictor of longevity. Perhaps that’s because conscientious people are better able to control impulses, engage in health daily behaviors and follow medical advice. They also tend to have healthier relationships and find better work environments, all of which mutually reinforce well-being and thriving.
(The next chapter then offers validated scales for assessing your pessimism/optimism, hostility, rumination, conscientiousness, and purpose in life.)
In the introduction to Part III: Help Your Body Protect Its Cells, the authors offer a handy telomere trajectory assessment, assessing the personal wellbeing and lifestyle factors that are known to be related to telomere length (and thus health) – current stressful exposures, emotional distress, chemical exposures, social support, exercise, sleep, nutrition- that help you focus on the lifestyle changes you could make (in the rest of the book) that lead to telomere-cell-body health.
POETRY AND QUOTES TO INSPIRE
You cells are going to age. But they don’t need to age before their time. What most of us really want is to have a long, satisfying life, with advanced cellular aging pushed toward the very end. If you want to slow inflamm-aging, if you want to stay in the healthspan for as long as possible, you’ve got to prevent chronic inflammation. And a big part of controlling inflammation means protecting your telomeres. Since cells with very short telomeres send out constant inflammatory signals, you need to keep those telomeres a healthy length.
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We are largely unaware of the mental chatter in our minds and how it affects us. Certain thought patterns appear to be unhealthy for telomeres. These include thought suppression and rumination as well as the negative thinking that characterizes hostility and pessimism. We can’t totally change our automatic response but we can learn how to keep these automatic patterns from hurting us.
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Clinical depression and anxiety are linked to shorter telomeres – and the more severe these disorders are, the shorter your telomeres. These extreme emotional states have an effect on your cell’s aging machinery: telomeres, mitochondria, and inflammatory processes. It’s now much harder to write off depression and anxiety as “all in your head,” because research has demonstrated that these states reach past your mind and soul, past your heart, past your bloodstream, and all the way into your cells.
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Like the thoughts we think and the food we eat, the factors beyond our skin – our relationships and the neighborhoods we live in – affect telomeres. Communities where people do not trust on another, and where they fear violence, are damaging to telomere health. But neighborhoods that feel safe and look beautiful – with leafy trees and green parks – are related to longer telomeres, no matter what the income and education level of their residents.
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Do you have someone in your life who is close to you but also causes unease? About half of all relationships have positive qualities with less helpful interactions. Unfortunately, having more of these mixed quality relationships is related to shorter telomeres.
STORIES TO LEARN FROM
The initial study linking lifestyle to telomere health was conducted with mothers caring for a chronically biologically ill child. And the discoveries opened the door to so many further practical applications:
The mothers who perceived themselves to be under the most stress were the ones with the lowest telomerase. The mothers who perceived themselves to be under the most stress were the ones with the shortest telomeres. The mothers who had been caregiving for the longest time had shorter telomeres. The data showed clearly how stress impacts our biological health. The hope: “Our life experiences, and the way we respond to those events, can change the lengths of our telomeres. We can change the way that we age, at the most elemental, cellular level.”
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“Aging is often portrayed in such negative ways that most of us try not to even think about it. If you had parents or grandparents who got sick early, or who simply gave up once they hit a certain age, it may be hard for you to imagine that it’s possible to be old, healthy, and energetically engaged with life. But if you can form a clear, positive picture of how you would like to age, you suddenly have a goal to work toward while aging – and a compelling reason to keep your telomeres and cells healthy. If you think of aging in a positive way, odds are that you’ll live seven and a half years longer than someone who doesn’t!
One of our favorite examples of a person who is constantly renewed in spirit is my (Liz’s) friend Marie-Jeanne, a delightful molecular biologist who lives in Paris. Marie-Jeanne is about eighty years old; she has white hair and wrinkles, and her back is lightly stooped, but her face is lively and intelligent. Marie-Jeanne and I met up for the afternoon recently. We had lunch. We visited the Petit Palais art museum, walking upstairs and downstairs and seeking out most of the exhibits. We explored the Latin Quarter on foot and visited the bookshops. Six hours later, Marie-Jeanne was looking fresh with no sign of slowing down. I was ready to drop from exhaustion. I proposed heading back (“so Marie-Jeanne could rest”). As Marie-Jeanne suggested yet another venue to visit, I, ashamed to admit how desperate I was to put up my aching feet, conjured up a previous engagement so my tired legs could get home to collapse.
Marie-Jeanne checks many of the boxes that define healthy aging for us:
* She’s stayed interested in her work over many years. Although she’s officially part retirement age, she still goes into the office at her research institution.
* She socializes with all sorts of people. She hosts monthly dinner discussion (held in many languages) for her younger colleagues.
* She lives in a fifth-floor walkup apartment. At times, her younger friends have to forgo a dinner party there because they are too stiff or fatigued to get up all those flights of stairs – but Marie-Jeanne navigates them as deftly as she has for many years.
* She is always interested in new experiences, like visiting museum exhibits that come to town.”
EXERCISES TO PRACTICE
Exercise helps protect your cells by warding off inflammation and maintaining your telomeres. And it’s not just that excise is helpful; we also know that sedentariness itself is terrible for metabolic health. Moderate aerobic endurance exercise, performed three times a week for forty-five minutes at a time, for six months, increases telomere activity two fold. So does high-intensity interval training, in which short bursts of heart-pounding activity alternates with periods of recovery. It’s the underlying cardiovascular fitness that matters most.
In addition to planned exercise, it’s important to keep moving throughout the day. Activity that is woven into your daily life lifts you out of the dreaded “sedentary” category, which is linked to shorter telomeres. So add little walks all day: Park farther away from your destination, take the stairs, or have a walking meeting. At least stand up once every hour.
As scientists have realized that sleep is crucial to your mind, your metabolism, and your mood, they have increasingly included measurement of telomeres in their sleep studies. The same answer keeps coming up: Long sleep means long telomeres. Getting at least seven hours of sleep or more is associated with longer telomeres, especially if you are older. When sleep quality remains good, telomeres stay pretty stable across the decades. Good sleep appears to be especially protective as we get older, buffering the natural age-related decline in telomere length.
Give Yourself the Gift of Protected Transition Time
Your mind is not a car engine. You can’t run it high speed right up until bedtime, doing work, exercise, chores, tending to children, and then expect it switch it off and drop into slumber. It doesn’t work that way. Biologically, you brain is more like an airplane. You need a slow descent into sleep, landing as gently as possible. So give yourself the gift of transition time between work and sleep, a sleep routine or ritual that lets you wind own. The smoother the transition, the less jolted you’ll feel when you land.
Even five minutes of transition time can make a difference. Begin by unplugging. Turn off your phone or set it to airplane mode; let your body have a break from instant responding. If you have the willpower, leave your phone in a different room entirely. By setting aside phones and others screens, you minimize the number of stressors that can fill your mind with nighttime worries. After you’ve turned off the screens, perform a quiet, pleasant activity – not to make yourself sleepy but to create a transition period of calm and comfort. Some people like to read or knit; you can listen to an audio meditation or music that relaxes you.
Distancing from Ego Threat Stress
By distancing your thoughts from your emotions, you can convert a threat response into a positive feeling of challenges (thus protecting your telomeres from the negative effects of “bad” stress).
Linguistic distancing. Think about an upcoming stressful task using the third person, as in “What is making Liz nervous?” Thinking in the third person “puts you in the audience,” so to speak, or makes you a fly on the wall. You don’t feel so caught up in the drama. Thinking in the third person and not using “I” leads people to feel lest threatened, anxious, and ashamed, and to engage in less rumination. They perform better at stressful tasks, and raters view them as more confident.
Time distancing: think about the immediate future, and you will have a bigger emotional response than if you take a longer-term view. Next time you are in the grip of a stressful event, as yourself, in ten years, will this event still have an impact on me? Recognizing the impermanence of an event helps you get over it faster.
Visual distancing: If you have experienced a stressful event that you still feel emotional about, visual distancing allows you to emotionally process it in a way that will help put it to rest. Rather than just relive the event straight up, which can induce the same emotions you felt in those moments, step back and view the event from afar, as if it’s happening in a movie that you’re watching. That way, you won’t re-experience the event in your emotional brain. Instead, you’ll view it with greater separation and clarity. Distancing takes some of the power away from a negative memory. This technique is also known as cognitive defusion, and it’s been shown to immediately reduce the brain’s neural stress response.
The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer by Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, and Elissa Epel, PhD. Grand Central Publishing, 2017.