For years, scientists have known that telomeres—the caps at the end of each strand of DNA—protect our chromosomes and affect how quickly and how well our cells age. As telomeres wear away, it affects our aging process, which explains why some people seem to age faster than others. Telomeres shorten as we age, but things like smoking, lack of exercise, a poor diet and stress also can shorten them.
The good news is, just as certain habits can wear away at our telomeres and expedite the aging process, there are things we can do to lengthen them. And the even better news is that many of these practices will bring more happiness just by making them part of your life.
Change Your DNA
“The little things we do each day can add up to have big effects on telomeres,” explains Elissa Epel, Ph.D., who co-authored the book The Telomere Effect
with Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph.D., winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for her groundbreaking discoveries on telomeres’ role in aging. Elissa says that an increasing amount of attention is being given to how habits like gratitude, meditation and happiness can influence telomere length.
“We are talking about small habits during our life that really add up to healthy cell stability later in life, when we are typically so vulnerable to diseases of aging,” Elissa says. “People with longer telomeres are 20 percent less likely to develop heart disease.”
While she advocates a healthy diet with lots of vegetables, Elissa’s prescription for longevity also differs from the traditional “eat right and exercise” approach. Much of living longer and happier is about changing our response to stress and minimizing negative thoughts.
“Mindset and mental health are some of the most important parts of healthy aging,” she says. “We can’t forget the daily work of good, healthy habits…but fewer people realize that where we put our attention is also critically important.”
Minimize Stress and Work on Well-Being
Focusing on positive things, regardless of the situation, and finding ways to fully engage with life has a proven association with longer telomeres. Practices like meditation, tai chi and qi gong
can reduce stress and increase the production of telomerase, an enzyme that replenishes telomeres.
“When we can’t change stressful situations, we have to live with them more gracefully,” she says. “It’s hard to totally escape wear and tear. But there are different ways one can live with a difficult situation.” She recommends focusing our attention on positive things—even when there’s a lot of negative things happening—and to engage with our lives in real time.
“Stress and aging are, in a sense, close friends. Chronic psychological stress can speed up aging in many ways, including by increasing inflammation in our blood slowly over time, and shortening our telomeres.”
Adopting healthy physical and mental practices, however, can offset some of those effects. “They…are stress-buffering and essential,” Elissa says. “They are not just ‘good’ for you, they are critical for your survival and health span.”
Paula Felps is the Science Editor for Live Happy.