Taking care of your tender telomeres - why it pays to tune into your cells

The protective caps at the ends of our chromosome determine how fast our cells age and die. We need to take better care of them, says Margaret Jennings

IF you were told your cells were “listening” to you and what you communicate to them can greatly influence how you age, what would your reaction be? To fall about laughing?

When the comment comes from a Nobel prize-winning molecular biologist, however, you might pause and give it some thought.

But that’s exactly the claim made by
Dr Elizabeth Blackburn, a scientist who has devoted her career to investigating telomeres, the part of our chromosomes which determine how fast our cells age and die.

Telomeres take note of how we are living — our thoughts, what we eat, how much we exercise, as well as other lifestyle factors. Shortening of telomeres is linked to ageing and age-related illnesses, whereas longer ones are signs of health and longevity.

They are the protective caps at the ends of the chromosomes, described as being like the tips of shoelaces; if you lose the tips, the ends start fraying and the cell dies.

An enzyme called telomerase, discovered by Blackburn, can help restore the length of the telomeres.

Blackburn and health psychologist Dr Elissa Epel (who has devoted her career to lifelong stress), joined forces in research 15 years ago and the studies they have carried out have set in motion a whole new way of examining the relationship between the human mind and body.

What has surprised them — along with the rest of the scientific community — is that telomeres don’t just carry out the commands issued by your genetic code; they are listening to you.

“They absorb the instructions you give them. The way you live can, in effect, tell your telomeres to speed up the process of cellular ageing. But it can also do the opposite,” say Blackburn and Epel, in their newly released book called The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer.

“The foods you eat, your response to emotional challenges, the amount of exercise you get, whether you were exposed to childhood stress, and even the level of trust and safety in your neighbourhood — all these factors, and more, appear to influence your telomeres and can prevent premature ageing at the cellular level,” they claim.

The advice they give in their book about how lifestyle influences the way we age, our lifespan, is not new. We read extensively about diet, exercise, positive thinking, social connections, proper sleep, and stress-free methods. What is different is the zooming in on how our healthy or unhealthy lifestyle habits can be measured and “felt”, at that cellular level, through the length of those telomeres. This then offers a more scientific explanation for the mind-body connection in all of us.

For instance, while we know psychological stress is bad for us, how it actually ages cells can be seen when you measure the wearing down of the tips of the chromosomes, the telomeres.

Although ageing is a complex issue, influenced by several factors, their message is this: “In short, one of the keys to a long health span is simply doing your part to foster healthy cell renewal.”

In that context, it is obvious that this is one area where we have choice about whether we want to spend our longevity in a “health span” or a “disease span” zone. But it’s not that simple, of course.

“Does our research show that by maintaining your telomeres you will live into your hundreds, or run marathons when you’re 94, or stay wrinkle-free? No. Everyone’s cells become old and eventually we die,” they write.

“But imagine that you’re driving on a highway. There are fast lanes, there are slow lanes, and there are lanes in between. You can drive in the fast lane, barrelling toward the disease span at an accelerated pace.

“Or you can drive in a slower lane, taking more time to enjoy the weather, the music, and the company in the passenger seat. And of course, you’ll enjoy your good health.”

The good news then is that even if we are currently on a fast track to premature cellular ageing, we can switch lanes; we may be able, over time, to lengthen those telomeres.

As a lifestyle guide alone, the book is worth reading. Take sleep, for instance.
As scientists realise that sleep is crucial to our minds, metabolism, and mood, they have increasingly included measurements of telomeres in their sleep studies.

“Researchers have looked at how sleep length affects telomeres in different populations and the same answer keeps coming up: Long sleep means long telomeres,” they write.

Getting at least seven hours of sleep or more is associated with longer telomeres, especially if you are older: “Get less than seven and telomeres start to suffer.”

Add to that the quality and sleep rhythm (going to bed and waking up at regular times) and your telomeres are extra happy.

But remember: Don’t get overly stressed about it all, eat well, do moderate exercise regularly, and keep a good attitude to life’s ups and downs — and your telomeres will be laughing too.

The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer by Dr Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr Elissa Epel is published by Orion, €12.30


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