The Telomere Effect

  • By Elizabeth Blackburn, Phd & Elissa Epel, Phd

  • Published January, 2017

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The Telomere Effect by molecular biologist Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and health psychologist Dr. Elissa Epel feels like a tipping point. The phenomenon, popularized by author Malcolm Gladwell, is that unique moment when a paradigm shift occurs. Gladwell describes it as “the moment of critical mass”, when entire societies can very suddenly adjust their outlook. It’s the result of thousands of changes at the micro level bursting forth to the macro. We’ve seen our fair share of tipping points recently. Our attitudes concerning gay marriage, head trauma and marijuana have quickly and radically shifted for the better. One hopes we are in the midst of tipping points concerning global warming, assault weapons, social media and painkillers. But there has been an elusive tipping point bubbling under the surface for some time now. The moment of critical mass has not yet occurred, although all the ground work has been laid. It seems to be just a matter of time, but time is of the essence, for it concerns what one could argue is the most important tipping point we must make. Human health. 

Critiques of the modern western lifestyle have not been in short supply. We eat too much sugar. We’re too sedentary. Too distracted. Too isolated, medicated and paranoid. The list goes on. Unfortunately, it’s all too true. The defense department now considers the health of everyday Americans an existential threat to our very country. If current trends continue, by the year 2040, our entire federal budget will be engulfed by our out-of-control healthcare costs. Over 110 million Americans (roughly one third of our country) are either pre-diabetic, or diabetic. Forty percent of the country is obese. Not just overweight, obese. We require so much medical attention for our lack of self-discipline that the costs of medicare and medicaid will subsume every single tax dollar in a mere 22 years. The triggers for such poor decision making are manifold - financial stress, nature deficiency, social isolation, lack of sleep, etc. and it becomes a toxic cycle. Panicked yet? 

But how to change when our very environment and economy seems to operate by preying upon our vices? How do we navigate a course through the endless ocean of health advice and gimmicks? Even when we make the tiniest strides toward self-improvement, our footsteps are often erased by the relentless waves of temptation and deterrence. So we remain trapped. Unhappy and unhealthy, too tired to start anew. And yet there’s that voice inside each of us that knows there’s a better way. We intuitively feel that many of our decisions are wrong. The voice whispers to us: I shouldn’t eat this pizza. I shouldn’t have have this gut. I should see my friends more. I should go for a hike. I should get off my phone. I should read more books. I should start meditating. I should stretch. I should focus. I should… I should…

The voice is right. It’s not rocket science. We actually know what to do, and what not to do. So what’s holding us back? I have a simple theory:

Lack of story. 

We are a storytelling species. We draw upon stories. The stories of our past shape our future. We need stories to make sense of the world. Stories inform us in nearly every facet of our lives. We remember stories. 

I would argue that because there’s been no unifying narrative to capture our imaginations when discussing our mental and physical health, there’s been no tipping point. Every health recommendation seems to exist of its own accord, making it near impossible to remember and follow each bit of advice. They each seem like distinct hacks effecting different parts of our lives, never culminating in the whole. But it’s not true. Everyday more and more people are realizing that their bodies and minds are not merely connected, but that they are one. We are the sum of our biology. If we are of ill-health physically, it’s almost impossible to be in good health mentally. If we lack discipline in one phase of our lives, it bleeds over into others. How we do anything is how we do everything. We know this, but the fundamental mind-shift that would enable us to keep making good decision has yet to occur. We need some semblance of unity to inform our choices. A thread to tie it all together. A story to draw upon. We now have one. And it’s the best kind of story one can hear, because it’s not based on unprovable axioms or philosophies, but science. 

Enter telomeres. (pronounced tee-low-meers). 

Inside every single one of the over ten trillion cells in your body, lies a nucleus. And inside each nucleus lies our chromosomes, the tiny molecules that contain all of the hereditary information passed down to us from our parents and ancestors. This hereditary information comes in the form of DNA, those mind-boggling double-helix strands of letters that determine who we are and how we look. At the end of each strand of DNA are minuscule little caps made of protein that protect the strand. These caps are our telomeres. 

These caps protect the DNA strand, thus protecting the chromosome. Think of the plastic tips at the end of your shoelaces. Without these tips the shoelaces becomes so frayed that they can no longer do their job. It’s the same with telomeres. Without telomeres, DNA strands become damaged and our cells can’t do their job. 

Our cells replenish by copying themselves (mitosis). This happens throughout our entire lives. But each time a cell copies itself, it’s telomeres get shorter. Eventually telomeres get too short to protect the chromosome, and the cell reaches a stage called senescence, where the cell stops dividing permanently. “The word senescence has a shared history with the word senile,” our authors write. “In a way that’s what these cells are - they’re senile. They get their signals confused, and they don’t send the right messages to other cells. They can’t do their jobs as well as they used to. They sicken. When too many of your cells are senescent, your body’s tissue starts to age. Senescent cells can leak pro-inflammatory substances that make you vulnerable to more pain, more chronic illness.

Cell death and senescence are natural parts of the aging process. In fact you want most of your cells to stop dividing at some point. When cells don’t stop dividing thats how cancer starts. But the longer your cells are replicating the healthier you feel, look, think and age. So the less senescent cells there are in your system the better. Senescent cells are brought on by shortened telomeres, so it begs the question, what if there was a way to keep your telomeres long and healthy? What if you could protect your telomeres, thus protecting your cells? Could you make yourself feel better and healthier all the way down at the cellular level?

The answer is YES. 

Dr. Blackburn and Epel put it best: “Your telomeres, it turns out, are listening to you. They absorb the instruction you give them. The way you live can, in effect, tell your telomeres to speed up the process of cellular aging. But it can also do the opposite, The foods you eat, your response to emotional challenges, the amount of exercise you get, whether you are exposed to childhood stress, and even the level of trust and safety in your neighborhood - all these factors and more appear to influence your telomeres and can prevent premature aging at the cellular level.

We’ve always known that healthy living can ward off disease and depression, but to know that the choices we make literally change the very essence of our physical being is motivating in the extreme. Dr. Blackburn and Epel spend the bulk of their book laying out strategies and actions that promote healthy telomere length.  As you’d expect from competent scientists, every bit of advice is backed up by experiments and studies from around the globe. They focus intently on thought awareness and mindful attention

Thought awareness is as simple as it sounds. It is the practice of analyzing your own thoughts, and asking yourself why you’re having them. When someone cuts you off in traffic, and you immediately feel a sense of overwhelming rage, one of the best ways to calm down is to ask yourself, “Why did that piss me off so much?” Once you begin peeling back the layers of the emotion, it’s amazing how quickly these surges can subside. It’s a perspective enhancing process, and when you arrive at an enhanced perspective, the actions of an inconsiderate driver can quickly become frivolous to your own well-being. Our emotions rarely align with a rational reaction. Playing detective on why you’re having them provides a level of calming conscientiousness that we all could use more of. 

Mindful attention is another mental key to telomere strength. When was the last time you became absorbed in an activity or story? When was the last time you spent a chunk of time away from your phone? If you can’t answer these questions, your telomeres are mad at you. Living in the moment, and focusing your attention free of distraction benefits your mental well-being, which reverberates all the way down to your cells, and helps maintain telomere length. When you’re engrossed in a project or trade, the word melts away, including stress. Unfortunately, each of us walks around with an addictive diversion-machine nestled into one of our pockets almost 24/7. It’s robbing us of our focus, time, energy and mental health. The Telomere Effect makes it obvious - it’s time to rethink your relationship with your phone. 

But how to deal with stress when it inevitably rears its ugly head? Stress can grow worse when avoided, so learning to deal with it head on is essential. Dr. Blackburn and Epel focus on cultivating what they call a challenge response to stress. Rather than letting your fear run wild, they propose developing a a bring it on attitude that not only helps maintain your telomeres, but it can actually lengthen them. When you feel threatened by a situation or obstacle, your body begins to physiologically shut down, and prepares to tolerate pain. Your blood vessels constrict, your heart pounds, you might sweat or get butterflies. But a challenge response allows you to marshall your resources - “when your heart rate increases, and more of your blood is oxygenated; these are positive effects that allow more blood to flow where it’s needed, especially to the heart and brain.” You even get a nice shot of cortisol from your adrenal gland, which increases your energy. “Athletes who have a challenge response win more often, and a study of Olympic athletes has shown that these highly successful folks have a history of seeing their life problems as challenges to be surmounted.” 

Their evidence of the benefits of developing a challenge response were best displayed when our authors brought a group of chronically stressed care-givers (a group that historically suffers from short telomeres) into their lab to perform a simple experiment. Each volunteer entered a room where a pair of stony-faced researchers sat facing them from behind a table. The care-givers were told “You’re going to perform some tasks in front of two evaluators. We want you to try hard to do your best. You are going to prepare a five-minute speech and then deliver it, and perform some mental arithmetic. You can make some notes for your speech, but you will have to do all the math in your head.” This is a daunting exercise for almost anyone, which was the point. The team behind the experiment expected most people to fail and struggle, which they did. But what they were interested in was how the caregivers reacted to this struggle. Some of the care-givers had an extremely high sense of stress in regards to the experiment. The thought of being embarrassed in front of the researches was almost too much to bear, and their stress markers careened off the charts. This was a crisis level reaction to what one could argue is a relatively benign situation, where nothing of real consequence or value was at stake. Their reaction was out of touch with the stakes. On the other hand, there was a smaller group of caretakers who struggled just as much as the former group, but their stress levels remained stable. They had formed a challenge response to the experiment, and one could argue, refused to let their identity get wrapped up in what was a simple exercise. You can guess which groups had the longer telomeres, and thus better overall health.

The Telomere Effect is brimming with fascinating studies and experiments that all focus on this new barometer for our health. The good news is that most of the findings in the book are the very things that our little voice has been telling us all along. Eat whole foods. Seek time in the outdoors and nature. Cultivate a few good, close relationships. Be active. Develop a sleep ritual. Disconnect from screens. etc. The revelation in its pages is that we must no longer suffer from a lack of cohesion in vision. These disparate pieces of advice are now sewed together through the very strands of our DNA. Every choice we make has consequences inside the very structure of our being. What once could be dismissed as hippie nonsense is now scientifically proven. Our authors even end the book with a one page synopsis they call the Telomere Manifesto - a bullet pointed list of the techniques and changes you can incorporate into your everyday life. It is a call to arms on behalf of ourselves and our society. The Telomere Effect will make you reevaluate the way you’re living your life. And not in the usual fleeting manner of inspiration pumped out by most charlatans and self-help gurus. Science doesn’t lie. The way you live, and the way you think, literally effects your body all the way down at the cellular level. We truly are the sum of our thoughts, of our attention, and of our actions. Take care of your telomeres, and you’ll take care of yourself. Take care of yourself, and you’ll help take care of society. Bring on the tipping point.

Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. Elissa Epel, authors of The Telomere Effect

Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. Elissa Epel, authors of The Telomere Effect