The internet is, unfortunately, full of misinformation regarding the aging process. We all want to know how to age gracefully or, ideally, not at all. Let’s just get that out of the way.
We will all age.
We will all die.
That being said, we do, as conscious human beings, have the ability to influence our physical aging experience. Let’s start by understanding telomere length as a potential marker of health.
(All information in this post comes from the book The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer by Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. Elissa Epel One of the authors made the groundbreaking discovery of a biological indicator called telomerase, the enzyme that replenishes telomeres.)
What the heck are telomeres?
(one of many Google images of telomeric representation)
See the red caps on the end of the DNA segments in the above photo? These are repeating segments of noncoding DNA that live at the end of chromosomes. Every time your cells divide (and they do A LOT throughout our lifetimes) the telomeres shorten. This shortening is a determining factor for how quickly your cells age and when they die. Before you freak out and invest in dangerous products that claim to keep your telomeres long or even restore lost length, take a moment to grasp that cells must divide and they must die. To prettily sum up a complex cellular principle: It is the balance and speed of this division of cells and death of cells that keep us healthy.
If your cells divide normally, but dead cells are sticking around in your body, this can create a weakened immune system and chronic inflammation. It’s a vicious cycle. The faster your cells die and the less efficient your body is at removing dead cellular matter, the worse the inflammation gets. On the other hand, if your cells divide and do so quickly without telomere shortening (i.e., cellular death), then cancer is the most likely outcome. So stay away from products, both external and internal, that claim to keep telomeres long.
Ideally, we want to support our bodies in keeping cellular balance as we age. The authors refer to the spectrum of a health-span and a disease-span. As we age, the physical self can experience discomfort and chronic health problems of varying degrees of severity. This is a state known as the disease-span. Healthy life choices can help us remain in the health-span for as long as possible and enter the disease-span (as influenced by the above and other cellular processes) later in life; imagine remaining in the healthspan into your 80s and 90s versus experiencing the disease span in your 40s and 50s.
(Of course, the above statement refers to what is within our control. We cannot control every environmental or genetic influence over our health or disease-span.)
What are those healthy life choices? Clichés turn out to be true; it’s all about good quality:
These three factors affect telomere length as well as physiological health all over your body. We already knew that, though. Telomere length as it relates to cellular health is just one of the many biometrics that reveal how well we are treating our bodies and how well our bodies are reacting to our environments.
In the face of seemingly obvious information, the authors take their findings a step further to present their most inspiring (to me) information. Our response to emotional and mental stress has a profound and undeniable impact on our telomeric state of being. The doctors are not referring only to the usual cascade of nervous system, adrenal gland, catecholamine, flight or flight responses. We can now chart changes in our cells and DNA that reveal our resilience in the face of life’s challenges.
The authors recommend mindfulness practices. Conscious breathing, meditation, and other various forms of stress reduction/management practices are now believed to be as important as the food/exercise/sleep trifecta effect on our physical selves. This quadrant of lifestyles choices can make it much easier for all of us to make sure we are reaching the standards necessary to support our bodies to live long in our health-spans. The proof of these choices is now measurable in ways we hadn’t previously imagined possible!
As the book claims, “Genes load the gun, and environment pulls the trigger.”
Scientifically verifiable findings continue to evince the undeniable mind/body/emotion connection. It is our individual responsibility to make the choices that feed our minds, bodies, and spirits.
How do you plan to replenish your total well-being? Do you meditate? Have a routine workout throughout the week? Abby prefers the moving meditation of yoga. Our friend José prefers to suck the blood out of virgins, which are getting harder to find. What about an activity that creates a sense of ease and play?
Here are two sources that you might find helpful:
A book about stress management.
A quick movement practice to reduce stress at the end of the day.
Let us know what you plan to do!