If you’re like me, you don’t think slowing down aging is possible. Sure, you can exercise and eat healthy. And yes, it might add a couple of years to your life. But in the grand scheme of things, we know we are helpless in stopping the clock from ticking over.
Well, the expert biologist Dr Elizabeth Blackburn might disagree with us. She is an Australian-American Nobel laureate in the field of Molecular biology. She received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 for discovering the molecular nature of telomeres, the ends of chromosomes that serve as protective caps essential for preserving genetic information, and for co-discovering telomerase, an enzyme that maintains telomere ends. Both telomeres and telomerase are thought to play central roles in aging and diseases such as cancer, and her work helped launch entire new fields of research in these areas.
Ok, let me try and simplify this.
We all start life as a single cell. Then it multiples to two. Two becomes four. Four becomes eight, and on and on up to our adult body, that comprises of about 200 million billion cells. And yes, some of those cells will divide thousands of times. And every time a cell divides, all its DNA has to be copied, because that carries the vital operating instructions that keep our cells in good working order.
But there’s a problem in the way DNA is copied. There is wear and tear. Because every time the cell divides and the DNA is copied, some of that DNA from the ends gets worn down and shortened. It’s called telomere DNA.
Think about it like the protective caps at the ends of your shoelace. And that tip that keeps the shoelace, or the chromosome, from fraying, and when the tip gets too short, it falls off, and that worn-down telomere sends a signal to the cells: “The DNA is no longer being protected”. Time to die! But if it was as simple as that we wouldn’t be here today; I mean all life would then have died off the face of the earth by now. So, Blackburn was curious: if such wear and tear is unavoidable, how on earth does Mother Nature make sure we can keep our chromosomes intact?
What she found is that cells called Tetrahymena never get old and die. The telomeres on these cells weren’t shortening as time marched on. Sometimes they even got longer. So, Blackburn began running experiments and discovered that these cells do have something else. It was a previously undreamed-of enzyme that could replenish, and make longer, telomeres, which they named telomerase. This is incredible because they found that with humans, the longer your telomeres, the better health you generally have. And that it’s the overshorterning of telomeres that leads to the signs of aging.
Blackburn says in this regard that to jolting up telomerase will decrease the risks of some diseases; it also increases the risks of certain cancers. However, Blackburn says there is something about the story of telomeres and their maintenance that can help us thwart the process of aging.
But what Blackburn discovered next, and here my interest in her work comes to the fore, was that the more chronic stress you are under, the shorter your telomeres becomes.
Yes, in other words, the more chronic stress you’re under, the more likely you would fall victim to an early disease and perhaps, a premature death. However, in Blackburn’s studies, they’ve found that some people can maintain their telomeres if they’re more resilient to stress. In other words, people who were able to experience their circumstances not as a threat but as a challenge, were more resilient to stress and its effects.
After Blackburn’s research, thousands of scientists from different fields added their expertise to telomere research, and confirmed that chronic stress is bad for telomeres.
Ok, just to clarify; chronic stress is the response to emotional pressure suffered for a prolonged period of time in which an individual perceives he or she has little or no control. It involves an endocrine system response in which corticosteroids are released.
Stress can affect people of all ages, genders and circumstances and can lead to both physical and psychological health issues. By definition, stress is any uncomfortable “emotional experience accompanied by predictable biochemical, physiological and behavioural changes. Some stress can be beneficial at times, producing a boost that provides the drive and energy to help people get through situations like exams or work deadlines.
However, an extreme amount of stress can have health consequences and adversely affect the immune, cardiovascular, neuroendocrine and central nervous systems.
In addition, an extreme amount of stress can take a severe emotional toll. While people can overcome minor episodes of stress by tapping into their body’s natural defences to adapt to changing situations, excessive chronic stress, which is constant and persists over an extended period of time, can be psychologically and physically debilitating. And as Blackburn discovered also shortens your telomeres.
But with that she also found in regards to stress, that attitude actually matters.
Let me explain, if you’re habitually a negative thinker, you typically see every demanding situation as a threat, meaning if your boss wants to see you, you automatically think, “He’s going to fire me,” and your blood vessels constrict, your level of the stress hormone cortisol go up, and stays up, and over time, that persistently high level of the cortisol damps down your telomerase. And this is bad for your telomeres.
On the other hand, if you typically see something stressful as a challenge to be tackled, then blood flows to your heart and to your brain, and you experience a brief but energizing spike of cortisol. And thanks to that habitual positive attitude, your telomeres do just fine.
Other factors, amazingly, has to do with being social. This then means that if you are in a caring long-term relationship, have lifelong friendships, are close to your family, or lives in a tight-knit community, it can improve your telomere maintenance.
This is all telling us that being in a committed relationship do impact on our own and others telomeres. This suggests that married or paired people are less responsive to psychological stress, and that the social and emotional support that comes with having a partner can be a great buffer against stress.
It’s natural for humans to want to feel needed, and like they’re part of something bigger. Many people strive to feel like they’re doing something good for someone else, and improving the world in some way. Being in a loving relationship, no matter what kind, can give a person a sense of well-being and purpose. In fact, it’s possible that having a sense of purpose can actually add years to your life.
Speaking of adding years onto your life, thanks to Blackburn research, we can now say that having a healthy social relationship can slowdown your aging.
Everyone is unique and has their own needs and desires when it comes to relationships, handling stress and living a healthy, meaningful life. If you’re the type of person who enjoys being alone, that’s okay too, but attempting to make a couple close relationships could mean noticeable benefits to your mental and physical health.
Sometimes having at least one good friend (or trusted co-worker, life coach or counselor) to help walk you through issues like social anxiety or depression can end up being more than worth it. It might be difficult, but it also might be exactly what you need. Even just having one or two strong, healthy relationships in your life can have a positive effect on your health, and keep you young.