How is it that one person can look like a college student and the other middle-aged while both are in their early 30s? Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. Elissa Epel get to the bottom of aging in their book The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer. Telomeres are the repeating segments of non-coding DNA that live on the ends of our chromosomes. The length of our telomeres influence how “well” we will age. Aside from a brief introduction to chromosomes in high school (where I and I’m sure many of you learned that the mitochondria is the “powerhouse” of a cell), I knew nothing about the subject. I don’t have any sort of scientific background, but I found this book to be incredibly fascinating and an interesting guide to living a long and healthy life.
There are two stages of life:
- The Health Span – this is when you are growing, your cells re-generate to repair your body from wear and tear, and you feel young. Most everyone enjoys a health phase from birth through their twenties.
- The Disease Span – this is when your body can no longer repair its cells properly, you begin to wrinkle, become more susceptible to disease, and start to feel “old.” Depending on health and environment, people enter this phase as early as in one’s 30s to as late as in one’s 60s.
Those of us with longer telomeres have a better quality of life and longer health span. Those of us with shorter telomeres may enter into the disease span prematurely.
Blackburn and Epel argue that by fostering our cellular health, we can prolong our health span and even reverse some detrimental effects of the aging process.
Nature (what we can’t change)
Our genetics can influence the length of our telomeres; also, curiously, so can the level of our parents’ education (lower education can result in shorter telomeres for the offspring).
Nurture (what we can’t change)
The amount of love and security that we experience in our upbringing has important consequences for our telomere health and quality of life. Those of us who were fortunate enough to grow up in loving homes and free from childhood trauma are more likely to maintain secure relationships as an adult, manage our stress well, and enjoy a longer health span. On the contrary, those of us who suffered from the stresses of abuse, violence, and insecurity are more likely to live with shorter telomeres and, therefore, a worse quality of life.
Diet (what we can change)
Many Americans consume diets rich in high-processed foods (like cereal, chips, etc.), red meats, fatty oils like omega-6s, and sugary sodas. These foods can cause an inflammatory response in the body, which exacerbates telomere health. A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and omega-3s can foster telomere health by mitigating the inflammatory response and the aging effect on the body.
Fitness (what we can change)
While all exercise is good, only moderate cardiovascular workouts and HIIT (high intensity interval training) have been shown to positively affect telomere length. With exercise, it is also important to remember that too much is unhealthy. All exercise puts stress on the body, however, when you overtrain (exercise too hard for too long over a period of time), your body is overcome by stress and cannot heal properly which will negatively impact your health.
Sleep (what we can change)
This one is obvious – sleep at least 7 hours a night to foster telomere health. Also, keeping a normal sleep cycle helps support your telomerase (which are the proteins that support telomere growth).
Mental Health (what we can improve)
Depression and anxiety as well as negative thought patterns like rumination and pessimism can negatively impact the health of our cells as well as our immune system response. For more information on supporting mental health, consider checking out the book 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do.
Social Relationships (what we can change)
Toxic relationships, weak/ no emotional support system, and a lack of socialization are stressors that can harm your cellular health. Increased socialization and positive engagement with others are beneficial for both your mental and cellular health.
Environment (what we can change)
Living in an unsafe neighborhood causes chronic stress. Additionally, exposure to toxic chemicals like cadmium, lead, and BPA plastics are strongly linked to poor cellular health. Lastly, surprise, surprise – smoking is bad for you.
Stress (what we MUST change)
Stress level is a big predictor of telomere health. Most of the above is linked to stress in some way. For example, toxic relationships lead to stress, which leads to shorter telomeres. Stress management is key to a happy life, mental health, and longevity. This book focuses on two types of stress:
- Threat Anxiety Response – this is the bad stress. It causes you to feel stressed about an event even before it happens (like becoming nervous before public speaking). With this response, your blood vessels constrict, and your body produces cortisol (the bad stress hormone).
- Threat Challenge Response – this is the good stress. This causes you to feel energized by a problem that you are excited to solve. For example, energetic startup founders may be working constantly but experiencing mostly the “good stress.” This stress response leads to increased oxygen production, which can help you be more focused and perform better on a task.
Learning to turn your anxiety response into a challenge response is key to stress management. Here are two tips to accomplish this:
- Don’t sweat the small stuff
- Try to distance yourself from the stress by putting the problem into perspective. Stress happens, but is a small inconvenience or failure worth ruining your entire day over? Don’t allow yourself to over-stress. Give yourself a time limit. If you are upset now, allow yourself a few minutes to experience your emotions, reflect, and then move on!
- Don’t let your failures affect your sense of self
- For example, if you identify yourself as an “A” student, an “F” grade may be devastating; so, instead, try to identify yourself as a “hardworking” student, who is willing to learn so failure encourages you, rather than destroys you).
Telomeres are a window into our health. Living long healthy lives starts with our cells. Doing our best to provide ourselves with a good quality of life will pay off in a prolonged health span. If you are interested in learning more about this subject, reading about the case studies, or accessing tools such as personality tests, I highly recommend that you give The Telomere Effect a read. When we live in a healthy way, we can better support a healthy community, and environment. In this way, the health of our telomeres is in everyone’s best interest.
I wish you, Dear Reader, a long, happy, and beautiful health span.