The struggle to slow the aging process has many of us dying our hair, applying globs of wrinkle reducers to our face, enduring Botox injections to our chins and cheeks, resurfacing our skin with lasers, swallowing handfuls of vitamins and minerals, meditating, exercising, and eating healthy. But while we’re busy warding off the encroaching years, the crepey folds of skin around the knees and elbows reveal the truth:

We’re aging; some of us like runaway trains.

Is there anything we can do to slow this train down?

A new discovery would suggest that we can.

Scientists agree that the aging process is a biological brew of genes interacting with environment. But just how much of this is within our control? One researcher, the biologist and Nobel Laureate, Elizabeth Blackburn, may have found the answer in the cellular lives of pond scum.

Blackburn was interested in telomeres, those special sections of DNA that cap each end of the double helix and protect it during cell division, a bit like the plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces. These telomeres become shorter as we age, so Blackburn concluded that this shortening was simply a byproduct of aging.

Then, with colleague Carol Greider, she noticed something peculiar. The pond scum cells never got old and died. “Their telomeres weren’t shortening as time marched on. Sometimes, they even got longer,” Blackburn revealed.

Propelled now by an even greater curiosity, this latest mystery steered them both in the direction of telomerase, a new enzyme they discovered which helps to replenish telomere length. When they removed this enzyme in pond scum, the cells wore down and they died. This meant that telomerase could “slow, prevent or even reverse telomere loss caused by cell division”. It slowed the aging process.

Chronic stress and telomere length

Telomere shortening doesn’t happen at the same rate to everyone, but why?

As fortune would have it, psychologist Elissa Epel, a colleague of Blackburn who was studying the effects of severe chronic psychological stress on caregivers to children with a chronic disorder, wanted to know what happened to telomeres under similar stressful situations as her subjects.

Their combined research revealed, “The more years the mother had been a caregiver, the shorter her telomeres, and the more the mother perceived her situation as stressful, the lower the telomerase and the shorter her telomeres”. Chronic stress accelerated the aging process.

However, a small subgroup within the study had managed to maintain their telomere length and apparently were resistant to stress. This led Blackburn to conclude that the mothers with resistant telomeres perceived stress as a challenge, not as a threat; a distinction between the two attitudes that is literally life-saving and worth heeding.

Other studies

Captivated by these discoveries, other scientists began to investigate the mysteries of telomeres as well and discovered that those who meditated 12 minutes a day for 2 months, had a 43 percent boost in telomerase. They also concluded that close and supportive relationships assisted in maintaining telomere length. Conversely, exposure to violence and aggression, especially in childhood, have a long-lasting negative effect on telomere length. Still some neuroscientists say dancing is the number one exercise for warding off age.

What should we do to assist our telomeres?

After reading the results of this research you may conclude that all we need to do to extend our lives is inject ourselves with the enzyme telomerase; or at the very least, create a stress-free environment in which our telomeres can maintain their elongated status. Unfortunately, an injectable form of telomerase has not been invented yet but it’s right around the corner.

In the meantime, be good to your telomeres by limiting as much stress as possible.

And don’t forget to dance!


References

1. The Puzzle of Aging: Elizabeth Blackburn speaks at TED2017: https://blog.ted.com/the-puzzle-of-aging-elizabeth-blackburn-speaks-at-ted2017/

2. Neuroscientists Reveal the Number One Exercise for Slowing Down the Aging Process:
https://ideapod.com/neuroscientists-reveal-number-one-exercise-slowing-aging-process/

3. How to Slow Down Aging, According to Science: http://www.businessinsider.com/how-to-slow-down-aging-according-to-science-2017-11