The obsession with increasing your lifespan and looking, at the very most, your age, is nothing new. What is new, however, is the science-driven revelation about how to tackle this conundrum effectively. Never mind downing gallons of green tea, nailing the downward-facing dog and slathering your face with hyaluronic acid, the key to living longer and looking younger, say Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist Dr Elizabeth Blackburn and psychologist Dr Elissa Epel, is all down to how you look after your telomeres.
So what’s a telomere, you’re most likely wondering? Well, the scientific answer is that they are the caps at the end of our chromosomes that protect our DNA. Chromosomes carry all a cell’s genetic information and telomeres are the protective buffers that determine how fast they age and die. In layman’s terms, telomeres are like the plastic tips of shoelaces. If you lose the tips, the laces start to fray, rendering them ineffective.
In their groundbreaking new book, The Telomere Effect, Drs Blackburn and Epel include the research findings and lifestyle tweaks they claim will help reduce chronic disease and improve our well-being all the way down to our cells. Their fascinating discovery – detailed in what is touted as one of the most exciting health books to emerge in the past decade – is poised to revolutionise the way we think about, and therefore approach, ageing.
Through their award-winning research Blackburn and Epel have discovered that the length and therefore condition of our telomeres can have a direct impact on how well – or not so well – we age. When our cells lose their telomeres, the body begins ageing.
Unlike the use of anti-ageing creams – which experts say we need only begin using once we hit 25 – the trick is to start very early. Ageing begins in utero; a pregnant woman can inadvertently shorten both her and her unborn child’s telomeres by being highly stressed.
But there’s good news. You can change the length of your telomeres. An enzyme called telomerase adds DNA to the ends of chromosomes to prevent, and in some cases reverse, the shortening process. By following Blackburn and Epel’s pioneering work – which advocates simple lifestyle changes – you can increase your telomerase, thereby lengthening your telomeres. As Blackburn says, ‘It’s all in our control.’
Train your telomeres
Exercise reduces oxidative stress and inflammation, and increases telomerase. Aim for 45 minutes of moderate cardiovascular activity three times a week. Research also shows that the more varied the types of workout, the longer your telomeres. On the flip side, too much exercise can be damaging due to insufficient rest. Warning signs include fatigue, moodiness, irritability and susceptibility to injuries and illness.
Sleep yourself young
Several studies have shown that sleep is linked to cellular ageing. Sleep deprivation throws our hormones out, which means we end up producing higher levels of cortisone (stress hormone), insulin (blood-sugar hormone) and ghrelin (the hormone that makes you hungry), all of which contribute to shorter telomeres. Sufficient sleep means you will feel less hungry (your body needs deep sleep to regulate your appetite) and less emotional and therefore maintain telomere length. A quick route to better sleep? Remove electronic devices from the bedroom, including smartphones.
Mind over matter
‘Having a good frame of mind,’ says Blackburn, ‘is a key part of keeping your telomeres healthy and “living younger”.’ Studies have found that certain thought patterns (particularly those that cause stress) can shorten your telomeres. The three mindsets to steer clear of are cynical hostility, mistrust and pessimism, and negative mind wandering. To combat negative thinking, The Telomere Effect encourages mindfulness, waking up with an attitude of gratitude and self-compassion.