Science Shows: Aging Is in Your Head

Science Shows: Aging Is in Your Head

By Tracy Moran


Because who doesn’t want a happy, healthy life?

By Tracy Moran

Still avoiding alcohol, ciggies and that guy you swore you would never date again? New Year’s resolutions have their time and place, but, let’s face it, they peter out right around now. Luckily, science offers a more measured, long-term approach to get us to a ripe old age.

Nobel Prize–winning biologist and president of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies Elizabeth Blackburn (she who won the Nobel in 2009 for discovering what’s at the ends of human DNA — telomeres — and how they can be replenished) and Elissa Epel, psychiatry professor at University of California, San Francisco, sat down with OZY to discuss how we can live healthier, longer. A great many more of their findings and tips can be found in their newly released book, The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer.

What are telomeres?

Elizabeth Blackburn: Picture a shoelace and how the tips of the ends of the shoelace are protected. Those little plastic tips have to be long enough and intact to stop the shoelace ends from fraying. Throughout your body, you have lots of these tiny little “shoelaces”: They’re your DNA — your precious genetic material. And if you don’t have good tips at the end of your DNA — those tips are called telomeres — then the DNA will start fraying and cells will start aging. So you have to make sure these chromosome ends are not so worn down that they won’t protect the DNA. If they wear down, the cells don’t work properly, and the cells can’t replenish tissues. In humans, this natural wearing down happens over the decades of our life. But the worse it happens, the more likely we are to get diseases like heart disease, cancers, diabetes and even some dementias. So keeping telomeres healthy keeps you healthy for longer. 

What about aging science has surprised you the most?

Blackburn: That your mind has a real effect that we can see in how much the telomeres are wearing down. Our mental well-being and state of mind have real impacts on the wearing down of the telomere ends. That, in turn, has real effects on how well you can keep your body healthy. It’s exciting in that it’s something that people can have some control over. Our new book is all about what it is that we can do that we’ve learned from telomere science and which aspects of health behaviors work best.


How were telomeres discovered?

Elissa Epel: Elizabeth conducted experiments with model organism like single-celled organisms and discovered what they consist of, and an enzyme that would lengthen telomeres and keep those cells alive in a way that made them immortal. Flash ahead 30 years, and we now understand how this same cell-aging system works in humans.

What keeps telomeres healthy? 

Epel: The amazing thing about this system is that it is not just determined by the genetics that create us and the health of the body, but also the health of the mind, the patterns of thinking that we carry around with us year after year.

Also, outside of our body, there are many things impacting our health that we’re not aware of and can’t measure well. They show up as factors that affect telomere length. The quality of our social relationships, for example, or even the quality of the neighborhood we live in, is associated with the health of our telomeres. So what we have now is a link between the social environment we live in and the rate of our cell aging — a potent example of the mind-body connection. This means that policies that shape and affect human well-being and leave masses of people exposed to toxic stress like poverty and food insecurity will also speed up our cell aging. And conversely, social policies can help protect telomeres!

Is it ever too late to renew our telomeres?

Blackburn: No, telomeres are actually pretty malleable. We see this, for example, in middle-aged people. You’ll find that over a five-year period, some people’s telomeres will actually get longer, even though they tend to drift down over the course of the decades of life. But there are ups and downs, and if you’re maintaining them well, you really can make it less likely you’ll get diseases early. It’s not like a clock ticking. You can change how fast they’re wearing down, and they can even hold their own for quite a while. 

What can we do to lengthen our telomeres today?

Blackburn: Have fun, get exercise of any kind, say something warm to somebody every day and enjoy healthy food.

Epel: Look at your day very carefully and notice what you’re doing that could be wearing out your telomeres. Are you doing things like eating processed meat or drinking sugared soda? Or do you have a routine that you know is stressful that you can get rid of or reframe? Look at your day and see what can be toxic if it adds up day after day over a period of years. And what in there are you missing that could be protective to your telomeres? Take five to 10 minutes every day for a mind/body exercise that tunes up your nervous system, bolsters your stress resilience and gives you reserve capacity so that when you do have stressful events, you have more of a buffer. 

Could telomeres just be a symptom?

Blackburn: Some people thought that the wearing down might just be indicative of something else going on. But I think it’s important to understand that this wearing down that’s happening silently throughout the body is, in fact, also contributing to how quickly your health span will end. When the DNA tips are no longer protected, then all sorts of things start happening that we just used to assume would happen in old age, like heart disease, cancers, diabetes, etc. But we’re finding that there is real control to be had. By doing things that preserve our telomeres, we’re making it less likely that these things will happen and less likely that they’ll come on earlier. So we’re extending our health span. We can really have a say in putting diseases off. We can do it ourselves.