speaks at TED2017 - The Future You, April 24-28, 2017, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman / TED
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Elizabeth Blackburn and the story of telomeres: controlling aging

If you’re like me, you believe you can’t control aging.

Sure, you can eat healthy and exercise a lot. That might add a couple of years to your life.

But in the grand scheme of things, we’re pretty powerless in stopping ourselves from getting older.

Well, you might want to put those beliefs aside and watch this brilliant TED talk from expert biologist Elizabeth Blackburn.

She’s discovered what enzyme makes our bodies age and why this means we have more control over aging than we think.

Watch it here and prepared to be amazed:

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If you haven’t got time to watch the TED talk, we’ve summarized it in text:

Elizabeth Blackburn was always curious about those bundles of DNA in our cells called chromosomes.

She was particularly curious about the ends of chromosomes, known as telomeres.

When she originally began researching telomeres, all she knew was that they were really important to protect the ends of chromosomes.

Now, here’s the problem with the human body:

We all start life as a single cell. It multiples to two. Two becomes four. Four becomes eight, and on and on to form 200 million billion cells that make up our adult body.

And some of those cells have to divide thousands of times. And every time a cell divides, all of 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 glitch in the way DNA is copied. Every time the cell divides and the DNA is copied, some of that DNA from the ends gets worn down and shortened, some of that 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. Sorry.

But that’s not the end of the story, because life hasn’t died off the face of the earth.

So Blackburn was curious: if such wear and tear is inevitable, how on earth does Mother Nature make sure we can keep our chromosomes intact?

What they 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.

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So Blackburn began running experiments and discovered that these cells do have something else.


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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.

It’s the overshorterning of telomeres that leads to the signs of aging.

Now, surely all you need is a bottle of grade A organic fair trade telomerase and you’ll be free of aging, right?

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Well, not so fast, according to Blackburn. Yes, Blackburn says that nudging up telomerase does decrease the risks of some diseases, but it also increases the risks of certain and rather nasty cancers.

However, Blackburn says there is something about the story of telomeres and their maintenance that can help us thwart the process of aging. 

What Blackburn discovered is that the more chronic stress you are under, the shorter your telomeres.

Yep, in other words, the more chronic stress you’re under, the more likely you would fall victim to an early disease and perhaps, an untimely death.

However, in Blackburn’s studies, they’ve found that some people are able to 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 day in and day out but as a challenge, were more resilient to stress and its effects.

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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.

And what have they found in regards to stress?

That attitude matters. If you’re habitually a negative thinker, you typically see a stressful situation with a threat stress response, meaning if your boss wants to see you, you automatically think, “I’m about to be fired,” and your blood vessels constrict, and your level of the stress hormone cortisol creeps up, and then it stays up, and over time, that persistently high level of the cortisol actually damps down your telomerase.

Not good 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 “bring it on” attitude, your telomeres do just fine.

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Now, are there other factors outside our own skin that affect telomeres?

It’s been found that they’re social as well!

Staying in tight-knit communities, being married long-term, having lifelong friendships, improve telomere maintenance.

This is all telling us that do have power to impact our own telomeres, and we have the power to impact others as well.

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Written by Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the editor of Ideapod and founder of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 6 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. If you to want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter or Facebook.

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