The Secret to a Long Life? Telomeres. (We’ll Explain)

03/14/2017 03:18 pm ET

by Janet Ungless

Psssst. I have a secret to tell you. It’s something you’ll want to hear: A Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist and a health psychologist have figured out how to slow the aging process. They know how to keep your skin smooth and youthful looking, your brain sharp, your eyes bright, your energy vibrant. Their method also wards off much of the physical decline and illnesses typically associated with aging. At last, the fountain of youth!

Is it a concoction of pricey creams and pills? Some new superfood? A laser treatment?

Not even close. And actually, it’s not even a secret. Turns out the formula to forestall the effects of aging are all the healthy practices you know well: managing stress, getting enough sleep and exercise, and eating healthy food. This “can help reduce chronic disease and improve wellbeing, all the way down to our cells and all the way through our lives,” says Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph.D. (the molecular biologist) and Elissa Epel, Ph.D (the health psychologist) in their new book, The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer. They’ve scientifically confirmed in their lab what many health practitioners have been preaching for years.

The telomeres (pronounced tee-lo-meres) in the title refer to the tips of our chromosomes, which play a key role in how fast our cells age. Picture the plastic caps at the end of shoelaces that protect the laces from fraying. Things like smoking, stress, or a terrible diet can wear down our telomeres, which hastens the aging process. On the other hand, healthy behaviors can actually lengthen our telomeres, which prevents premature aging at the cellular level, keeping us “living younger.” Here’s how:

Telomeres listen to your thoughts Which is why it’s important to be aware of our thinking styles. Long-term stress and negative thinking can actually shorten our telomere length. When we perceive a stressful event as a threat (and feel anxious), our physiological fight or flight response works itself into our cells and eventually grinds down our telomeres. This leads to prematurely aging immune cells, which leads to premature aging.

When we reframe stressors as a challenge (with a hopeful, excited, “bring it ” mentality), it puts us in a more powerful state, and creates a physiological response that’s associated with better brain aging.

Telomeres love to move If there really were a fountain of youth, you’d have to run, walk, bike, or swim to reach it. Exercise charges up the cell cleanup crew so they have less junk buildup and shields telomeres from stress damage. So if you have a high-stress life, exercise isn’t just good for you—it’s essential.

Dr. Blackburn notes that the great thing about telomere research is that it’s quantifiable, giving us more specific direction than the vague advice to get off the couch. Aerobic fitness is most tied to good cell health, and just a moderate amount—45 minutes three times per week—does the trick.

Telomeres need their sleep Good sleep appears to be especially protective for our cells as we get older, buffering the natural age-related decline in telomere length. When sleep quality remains good, telomeres stay pretty stable across the decades. One surprise from the research: You don’t actually need a full eight hours of sleep to benefit your telomeres. Seven is enough, as long as you feel well-rested. Telomeres don’t like yo-yo dieting In fact, they don’t really mind if you’re carrying a little extra weight . . . as long as it’s not belly fat. That and poor metabolic health—high cholesterol and blood pressure and insulin resistance—are the real threats to healthy aging, so focus on eating nutritious foods. Repeated dieting takes a toll on your body; plus, it’s not good for your mental health to spend your life focused on eating less. It’s more sustainable to focus on eating well: Fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids (like salmon), fruits and vegetables, hearty bean dishes, nuts and whole grains provide a nourishing environment for your cells.

Telomeres want you to live in the moment Those who focus their minds on the present have longer telomeres, and mindfulness and meditation are linked to improved telomere maintenance. Mental focus is a skill that you can cultivate with practice. From time to time, check in with yourself: Where are your thoughts right now? If you’re worrying or rehashing old problems, gently bring your attention back to whatever it is you’re doing. The ability to focus on your breath, or your present experience and surroundings, turns out to be very good for the cells of your body.

Aging is natural—and inevitable. But to know that there really are no secrets, that you can actually affect the process through the choices you make just by living, well, it’s like Dorothy discovering in The Wizard of Oz that it’s always been within your power—if you believe it.

Janet Ungless is a New York-based editor and writer with expertise in wellness, health and fitness. She developed the content strategy for the launch of aloha.com and has managed content creation for several other startups. She’s written for Prevention, More, Livestrong, and Everyday Health. Find her on Twitter @jungless

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