Aging: it’s largely your chromosomes’ fault. That’s what biologist Elizabeth Blackburn discovered when she started exploring the world of the invisible, threadlike cellular strands that carry our genetic code.
She revealed her decades-long process of discovery in a TED talk from April that was posted online this week.
In the talk, Blackburn detailed how the cells dividing and multiplying inside our bodies each carry chromosomes that are bookended by vitally-important caps called telomeres.
You can think of the DNA-strand tips “like the protective caps at the ends of your shoelace,” she said. And just like those shoelace ends, telomeres fray and wear over time. Eventually, telomeres get so short that they fall off. “It’s the overshortening of telomeres that leads us to feel and see signs of aging,” Blackburn said. “It sends a signal. Time to die.”
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Blackburn shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in medicine with Carol Greider and Jack Szostak for discovering how telomeres, and an enzyme they named telomerase, can protect our chromosomes and make them last longer. Now thousands of studies based on that discovery are starting to shed light on simple ways we can control how short our telomeres get.
Here are a few key things people can do to keep their telomeres long. While these tips won’t make you live forever, they can help with human “health span” — the number of years a person lives happily, and disease-free.
The more chronically stressed we are, the shorter our telomeres become. Research conducted by Blackburn that focused on mothers caregiving for children with autism and other chronic conditions revealed that moms who were more resilient to stress — perceiving their situation as a challenge, rather than a stressor — kept their telomeres longer.
“Attitude matters,” Blackburn says.“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.”
In case you haven’t heard enough about how great it can be to add meditation into your routine, here’s another way researchers have found it helps: Family members who meditated for as little as 12 minutes a day for two months while caring for a relative with dementia improved their telomere maintenance.
Invest in your neighborhood
“Emotional neglect, exposure to violence, bullying and racism all impact your telomeres, and the effects are long-term,” Blackburn said. Meanwhile, tight-knit communities can be good for telomere health.
Get married and maintain lifelong friendships
In a 2013 study of 298 adults ages 65-74, participants who were married were found to have longer telomeres. Long term friendships can also help telomere health, according to Blackburn.
Make lots of money
Money can’t buy love, but apparently, it might buy some longer chromosomes. The same study that pointed to the benefits of marriage also reported that high income is associated with longer telomeres.