Wherefore Art Thou Telomeres?

shoelacesTelomeres. When first hearing the word, it conjures up the image of some exotic, tree-hugging animal known to inhabit the dense jungles of Africa. Telomeres are actually found inside human cells. They’re a repeating segment of noncoding DNA that live at the ends of our chromosomes. Much like the plastic or metal aglets placed on the ends of shoelaces, telomeres keep our DNA strands intact.

We have really long telomeres when we’re born. However, every time our cells divide, we lose a bit of telomere length. Once our telomeres whittle down to an unacceptably short length, our cells no longer divide. They’ve reached a state known as “senescence.” Senescent cells don’t function effectively and don’t take care of their debris. They emit irritants that bring the entire “neighborhood” down – much like one bad apple spoils the whole bunch. Short telomeres are associated with chronic disease and death.

Scientists have discovered an enzyme called telomerase that can slow, prevent, or even reverse telomere shortening. The body is somewhat miserly in its production of this substance; it produces just enough to keep cells in good working order. While supplementing the body’s production with artificial telomerase may seem like a good idea, it turns out to be a bad call. Excess telomerase can goad cells into becoming cancerous.

In The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer, Drs. Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel serve up a brief tutorial on these life-giving substances. They review research on risk factors associated with accelerated telomere attrition and offer strategies to counteract them. In particular:

Early onset cognitive impairment Stay interested and engaged in life. Keep learning and growing. Challenge yourself to have new experiences. Cultivate positive relationships.
Chronic stress and the feelings of fear, anxiety, shame, and/or defeatism that go with it Re-wire your thought patterns to treat stressors as challenges that advance your knowledge, skills, experience, and self-confidence. Make lifestyle adjustments to be rid of toxic stress.
Cynical hostility, pessimism, mind-wandering, rumination, and thought suppression (e.g., pushing away unwanted feelings) Don’t buy into or act on your negative thoughts. Develop mastery in a mind-body discipline (e.g., mindfulness, meditation) to elevate awareness of, and experience detachment from, these thoughts.
Purposelessness Pursue interests that serve the common good. For example, Experience Corps volunteers reversed 3 years of aging via 2 years of volunteering!
Sedentary lifestyle Moderate aerobic enduring exercise (e.g., 45 minutes per session, 3x per week) produces a significant uptick in telomerase activity. The more varied the exercise, the greater the benefit.
Poor quality sleep, sleep disturbances Practice good sleep hygiene to ensure at least 7 hours of quality sleep every night. Be attentive to the transition time at night to support the descent into sleep.
Maintain a healthy weight without excess belly fat. Eat a whole food, plant-based diet that features fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, legumes, and omega-3 fatty acids. While helping to conserve telomere length, this diet also minimizes oxidative stress and inflammation. That being said, don’t stress so much about diet that it works against your healthy telomere regimen!
Environmental stress. Seek housing in a low-crime, “friendly” neighborhood that is devoid of toxic waste. Use safe cleaning products in the home.
Unhealthy relationships Weave your social fabric with trusted friends and forwarding group affiliations. Avoid situations that consistently mix positive qualities with unhelpful or disturbing interactions. That kind of stress produces shorter telomeres.

I suppose it shouldn’t come as a shock that the strategies for sustaining healthy telomeres align with recommendations offered by a large chorus of other health professionals. Nonetheless, I was struck by the amount of coverage accorded to the relationship between our mental/emotional health and our cellular integrity. It’s a clear indicator that we need to be attentive to our overall level of life satisfaction if we want to enjoy long life.