Over the course of our lifetime, telomeres are burning down like a candle wick, leaving the chromosomes vulnerable to damage and starting our unwanted aging process. Investigators have understood the basics of telomeres since early 1978, when then postdoctoral fellow Elizabeth Blackburn, now at UCSF, first mapped their structure and later, with her partner in crime Jack Szostak of Harvard, their function.
In 1984, Elizabeth and her graduate student Miss Carol Greider, who is now at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, discovered the enzyme telomerase, which repairs and maintains telomeres, at least when it is around the sufficient levels. However, when those levels fall, which happens as we all get older, the aging process begins. The discovery won all three of them the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2009.
When the studies look at which individuals will die over the next three years, the chances are higher if your telomeres are shorter, says Elizabeth Blackburn. Telomere shortening plays into cardiovascular disease, immune-system problems and maybe diabetes by affecting beta cells in the pancreas-though only been shown in mouse models so far. However, the question is, are there ways to intervene to spare the telomeres and still preserve your health?
The answer my friends, is yes-at least preliminarily, stress reduction is a method of power. In 2014, Epel and her colleague Eli Puterman, who is also of UCSF, studied 239 very healthy postmenopausal women over the course of a year. Many of these subjects were experiencing at least one of major life stressors, which also included unemployment in the family, financial worries, the illness of a child and divorce.
The length of their telomeres was measured at the beginning of the year, and at the end, the more life stressors these women experienced in that time frame, the more their telomeres shortened that year. But some of the women also practiced some good health behaviors: they ate well, slept well and exercised. Consistently, the women who practiced good health behaviors maintained their telomere length.
The question had always been whether the telomeres respond to lifestyle changes or if the system is chronic and proceeds at its own pace, says EpeL. In our study, it was lifestyle, with damage occurring mostly in people who were sedentary. Worse, telomere-shortening stress is not always confined to older people and it does not ever have to be experienced firsthand. Eplel cites studies showing that when cord blood is drawn from the newborns, the babies whose mothers had experienced more stress when they were pregnant had shorter telomeres than those whose moms had easier pregnancies.
We replicated that original finding, she says, and it suggests healthy telomere maintenance doesn’t just start when we are born but before we are born. However, some researchers believe that improvements in exercise and healthy eating habits and other healthy behaviors can increase the output of telomerase, the animal studies in test tubes show that increased telomerase may in turn make telomeres grow. Telomerase supplements, however-either synthetically produced or in the overwhelming amount of herbal supplements that claim to include the enzyme-are definitely not the answer. If telomeres never burn down, you would get immortal cells, which is a fancy way of saying cancer cells.
You see, cancers love telomerase, and a number of cancers up-regulate it is like crazy, Blackburn says. However, some of these cancers are also related to low telomerase, because that makes telomeres less stable. Trying to boost telomerase through those supplements is a very dangerous game to play, one that you do not want to play. At least given the current state of our medical knowledge. We don’t know how to strike some kind of balance, Blackburn says. My personal feeling would be that if I take anything that would push my telomerase up, I’m without a doubt, playing with fire.
My friends, telomeres aren’t the only big, stress-related [layers in this aging game. Another one is chronic inflammation.
When we’re anxious, the sympathetic nervous system-which is not known for thinking things through too clearly-assumes you’re about to encounter a predator or some other major life-threatening challenge. The brain thus sends a signal to the adrenal gland to start secreting the hormones cortisol and epinephrine: together, this team of hormones signal the immune system to release proteins known as inflammatory cytokines. These prepare white blood cells and other infection fighters to rush to the site of an anticipated wound.
Actually, that works very well when there really is a wound, or when the danger is worth fleeing and you escape without any injury. Either way, the system, thanks largely to cortisol, dials itself back down. But what if you’re always braced for a all out battle of some kind-with your credit-card statements, your boss, or your kids-and the body is always flooded with inflammatory chemicals? In those situations the body suffers from what’s known as inflammation-and that is bad.
There is absolutely no invader as there is with a wound, but we’re reacting as if there is anyway, Epel says. That creates a friendly environment for cancer, brain deterioration, cardiovascular disease. In other words, for many of the main cold blood killers of aging. One of the best ways to battle this is with a settled psychic state, through mindfulness and meditation exercises. Increasingly, the researchers are finding that a particular form of meditation that is known as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)-which, as the name suggests, includes paying close attention to our feelings, thoughts and other stimuli while meditating-can calm an inflamed immune system in the very same way it can calm an inflamed mood.
In 2013, Mr Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist and the founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin- Madison, conducted a pair of studies showing just how powerful an effect MBSR can have on the body. In one, Richard and his compared 40 subject, 21 of whom engaged in eight hours of a combination of guided meditation, meditative walks, with lectures, as well, on meditation, and 19 of whom engaged in equally relaxing activities but without the meditation. At the end of even so brief a period as eight hours, the ones that were involved in meditation showed a decrease in the expression of the very genes that regulate inflammation-meaning a decrease in inflammation itself too.
Another study replicated the findings over a course of eight weeks, at the end, the experimenters used a suction device in order to raise a small blister on the arms of the subjects. When the fluid was withdrawn, the meditators showed significantly lower levels of inflammatory cytokines-the very same cytokines that do so much damage, when they circulate in the body chronically.The regular practice of contemplative methods indeed, seems to be able to alter the trajectory of age-related changes, says Davidson. There are some studies that ever show, meditation can slow the age-related decline of the gray matter in the brain.
On this last point Richard Davidson, understates things. Exciting research that was published in 2015 out of UCLA compared two sample groups of 50 people, all ranging in age from 24 to 77-a good demographic slice, since the gray matter actually begins declining when we’re all in our 20s. One of the group was made up of people who did not meditate, the other was with people who had been regular meditators for a time of four to 46 years. All 100 subjects’ brains were scanned with magnetic resonance imaging, the results my friends, were unmistakable: the meditators showed less gray-matter loss in several regions of the brain compared with the ones that did not meditate.
We expected a rather small and distinct effects located in some of the regions, that had been previously associated with meditating, Florian Kurth says, of UCLA’s Brain Mapping Center and the co-author of this study. Instead, what we observed, actually was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain. The point being my friends, regular practice of meditation seems to be able to alter the trajectory of age-related changes.
Once again my friends, there is scientific evidence, that MEDITATION, MINDFULNESS, and EXERCISE, can give you a longer quality life. May you be always in good health, humbly your Paul Earl.