Telomeres, Stress, and Aging: A Discussion with Nobel Laureate Dr. Blackburn and Dr. Epel on the Biological Process of Getting Older

telomeres stress and agingAs we age, we search for metaphors or descriptive phrases to understand what is happening to our bodies. “Falling apart” is one of the most commonly used expressions, though no one means it literally. But there is that feeling that something is breaking down, and it can feel like we’re no longer in control of our body, that a process we don’t really understand has been set in motion.

As it turns out, the phrase “falling apart” is actually accurate on a molecular level. Over the last few decades, incredible work has been done on understanding why aging—that is, the act of moving through time—means aging as we understand it on a physical level. Research has led us to the discovery and understanding of telomeres, stretches of DNA which protect our chromosomes. As these shrink, it’s believed, the cells themselves are damaged, leading to the process of getting older.

But there are ways to combat this, which makes for one of the most exciting breakthroughs in aging in a long time. On January 10th, the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, in partnership with the Institute on Aging, hosted Nobel Prize Winning Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and her colleague Dr. Elissa Epel for a discussion on telomeres—and how to protect them. It covered the astonishing findings in their book, The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer.

It was an enjoyable and enlightening talk, and everyone left with a deeper knowledge of how their bodies work. Understanding ourselves, and modifying our behaviors, has the potential to help us age with strength, dignity, and independence.

Understanding Telomeres: The Shoelace Covers That Impact Our Lives

The conversation at the JCCSF was led by New York Times health writer Anahad O’Connor, who focuses on living healthier, more productive, and, ultimately, longer lives. Luckily, that’s exactly what Drs. Blackburn and Epel specialize in.

In 2009, Dr. Blackburn, along with her colleagues Jack Szostak and Carol Greider, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work on telomeres. The prize wasn’t awarded just because the team had found something new—the implications of their breakthrough discoveries were enormous.

Telomeres, essentially, are like the protective plastic tips at the end of our shoelaces that keep the lace from fraying, except they are found at the edge of chromosomes, molecular pairings that hold our genetic data. This genetic data is what allows a cell to reproduce itself, which, given the short life cycle of cells, is the reason for our relatively long lives. If our cells died without dividing, we’d start aging much quicker.

But each replication shortens the length of the telomeres. As they get shorter, the chromosomes themselves begin to fray, and their replication weakens, and each one grows a little less strong. And immune system cells reproduce slower, which is why many people believe we’re more susceptible to sickness and cancer as we age.  

While we can’t say that the shortening of telomeres is the sole cause of aging, it’s clearly a major cause. Dr. Blackburn explained that if a younger person has prematurely shortened telomeres, they are more likely to get diseases associated with aging, like osteoporosis. So while there are many factors in aging, and many reasons why telomeres might waste away, it is clear that protecting them could be the key to healthier aging.

How to Protect Our Telomeres

That’s part of why the sell-out crowd was there. After all, just knowing why we age, while fascinating, doesn’t change our lives dramatically. The crowd of 200, 75% or so of whom were over the age of 50, were excited to hear what the doctors could tell them about protecting these telomeres. Because while we can’t (and don’t want to) thwart biology, we can help to mitigate its effects.

Dr. Epel, who directs the University of California San Francisco’s Aging, Metabolism, and Emotions Center, has been focusing on how people can work with their biology, instead of against it. She focuses on stress and aging, which, as their research has shown, so do telomeres.

One of Dr. Blackburn’s insights is that “telomeres are listening to your thoughts.” Stressful thinking can actually damage them. Our environment, both physical and mental, has a huge impact on the state of our chromosomes.

This means we have the power to change the way we age. As Dr. Epel explained to the crowd, you can protect your telomeres with some of the following steps:

  • Avoiding pessimism
  • Avoiding hostility
  • Avoiding toxins
  • Sleeping well
  • Most importantly, avoiding stress

This is an enormous key to keeping our telomeres strong, which is why Dr. Epel enthusiastically recommended meditation, or other forms of stress-relief such as yoga. We know these are good for us, and maybe we practice them. After all, how often have you said of someone that, “Stress has aged them?” And while we knew that could be meant literally, we didn’t really know why. We didn’t really understand the biology behind it.

Now, we do. We’re closer than ever to understanding the true nature of senescence and biological aging. We know that things we do, whether it’s stressing about work or burning the candle at both ends or engaging in worry about things we can’t control, hurt what we can control. We have an impact on how we age, and that matters.

It matters because we all want to age well, and we all want to be able to live with strength and independence. There is nothing wrong with aging. It’s a natural and normal part of life, and one to be explored. But knowing that this act of getting older, of moving through the years, can be made easier by the choices we make is inspiring. Drs. Blackburn and Epel have worked to discover why we age. Now it’s up to you to modify the how.

Institute on Aging offers a wide range of programs, services, and online resources to help older adults and their caregivers live independently, with dignity and adventure. Get in touch with us today to learn more.

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