Telomeres: The Link Between Stress and Aging

Scientists have pinpointed the exact part of our DNA that links stress to aging. Danielle Friedman on how your doctor will soon test you for it—and 10 ways to turn back the clock now.

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For Thea Singer, stress isn't an abstract concept. Three years ago, shortly before the manuscript for her book was due to her publisher, her elderly mother's health deteriorated. Suffering from severe emphysema, she clung to life through a ventilator, as Singer coordinated her care. Around the same time, Singer's daughter entered her pre-teens, and their usually serene relationship became challenging. "It was an incredibly, incredibly stressful time," she says.

Yet fortuitously for the Boston-based science writer, the book she was working round-the-clock to report and write aimed to mitigate these very types of stressors—along with larger issues Americans grapple with, from financial woes to terrorist threats. Specifically, Singer was exploring cutting-edge research into how stress ages us.

This fall, the product of her work hit shelves. In Stress Less: The New Science That Shows Women How to Rejuvenate the Body and the Mind, Singer has compiled perhaps the most comprehensive look at the impact of stress on women and men's bodies, down to our DNA. Her research reveals in unsettling detail how the more we let stress "get to us," the shorter we may live. "Stress is basically a biological clock," Singer told The Daily Beast. (Disclosure: When I worked as a book editor, I acquired Singer's project for Penguin Group but left the company before she began writing it.)

At the heart of her exploration of stress and aging are telomeres. If you're not already familiar with telomeres, you will be soon. Telomeres are the tips at the ends of our chromosomes that protect our DNA. They're often compared to the little plastic caps at the end of shoelaces, keeping everything intact. Over time, as cells reproduce, our telomeres become shorter and shorter, until they become so stubby that the process stops. As this happens, we see signs of aging.

Over the past few decades, research into telomeres has become a "white-hot area of science," says Singer. Last year, University of California-San Francisco cell biologist Elizabeth Blackburn (a major character in Stress Less) and two other scientists won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their groundbreaking work in discovering the enzyme that lengthens telomeres, called telomerase. And increasingly, researchers are discovering that telomeres serve as markers for our overall health.

But it's only now that the medical community is closing in on telomere testing for the average patient. "Sooner than you think," says Singer, doctors will likely start ordering a simple blood test to determine the length of your telomeres at your yearly physical. The technology exists in research labs; it's simply a matter of implementing it on a larger scale. In fact, in the next two weeks, Blackburn and renowned researcher Calvin Harley will be launching Telome Health Inc., a private telomere testing service "to assess health status, disease, and mortality risk, and responses to specific therapies."

Thankfully, like cholesterol, we have the tools to control our telomeres, to preserve them, and even lengthen them once they've been worn down. It all comes down to stress—or, more accurately, how we perceive and cope with stress.

As Blackburn and other scientists have proven, chronic stress accelerates the aging process. It works like this: When we encounter a stressful situation, we enter our primitive "fight or flight" mode, in which our brain signals our bodies to release potent stress hormones that, if we were actually fighting or fleeing, would help us to perform our best. Yet for many of us today, because the stress doesn't end once we spear the moose or escape to our cave, those hormones remain in our blood, wreaking havoc on our bodies. And as we work to fend off the damage, our cells reproduce more quickly.

Not surprisingly, the supplement and pharmaceutical worlds are taking note: A New York-based company called T.A. Sciences recently released the first supplement to restore telomeres. Made from a Chinese root, TA-65 helps to activate telomerase, which rebuilds the strands. And a Reno, Nevada-based biomedical research company called Sierra Sciences is actively working to create a drug that founder and molecular biologist Bill Andrews says could be the mythical Fountain of Youth that mankind has long sought. "I think this will be the biggest thing that ever hit the planet," he said.

Singer remains more than skeptical of such cure-alls (and touches on them only obliquely in her book, asking: What's the definition of a cell that lives forever, dividing indefinitely? A cancer cell. And cancer cells, despite their short telomeres, have "a hundred-fold more telomerase" than normal cells). At her recent book party for Stress Less, though her mother passed away last year and her daughter is now lurching toward teendom, Singer appears sprightly, fit, and relaxed. She offers simple, practical steps we can take that promise to not only improve overall health and well-being, but perhaps even turn back the clock. Here are 10 ways you can preserve or lengthen your telomeres.

1. Don't Diet

Not only is dieting psychologically stressful, it's also biologically stressful—and it may be aging us. A recent study out of the University of California-San Francisco revealed that the more rigid the female participants' dieting attempts, the shorter their telomeres. On the flip side, studies also show that eating "mindfully," and eating a healthy, balanced diet, can help to preserve our telomeres.

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2. Bust Belly Fat

Turns out a tummy may be more than just an obstacle to skinny jeans: Abdominal fat speeds up cellular aging. As "our guts expand, our health deteriorates, our hair grays, and our skin sags off our bones," writes Singer. Even more compelling: Our overall body obesity—or body mass index (or BMI)—doesn't appear to have an impact on telomere length, according to another remarkable study out of University of California-San Francisco. It's simply waist-hip ratio that matters.

3. Eat Pistachio Nuts

Pistachios may be small, but they are mighty when it comes to buffering the body's response to life's challenges. A 2007 Penn State study revealed that eating the nuts regularly can reduce our vascular response to stress; they relax our blood vessels, causing blood pressure, LDL (the bad cholesterol), and triglycerides to drop. While scientists haven't yet looked at the direct effect of pistachios on telomeres, by protecting our bodies against these physical stressors, it stands to reason that they also protect our DNA.

4. Take Omega-3s

Among the growing list of the benefits of Omega-3s, we can now add something akin to a youth elixir. Not only do the fatty acids (found naturally in fish like salmon and sardines) protect our telomeres, but research suggests they actually help them grow—essentially, reversing the aging process. "It's very preliminary, but it's exciting because it suggests there may be a way you can manipulate cellular aging with simple supplements," Dr. Ramin Farzaneh-Far, the scientist at USCF who discovered this power, told Singer. Also exciting: In another study, women who took multivitamins had longer telomeres than those who didn't.

5. Find an Exercise You Enjoy and Do It Regularly

Newsflash: Working out doesn't have to suck! And if you feel like it sucks, you may be doing your body more harm than good. When exercise feels like a dreaded chore, our bodies release stress hormones that counteract many of its positive effects. Yet finding a form of exercise that you enjoy and doing it regularly has been shown to preserve and sometimes lengthen telomeres, turning back the clock. To maximize the benefits, you should perform both aerobic and strength-training workouts.

6. Meditate

Because so much of stress is perceived—the more in control we feel, the more optimally our bodies function—perhaps it's no surprise that meditation can slow the aging process. In 2007, a team of researchers set up a three-month meditation retreat; by the end, participants had raised the level of telomerase in their blood, compared to a control group. And as we now know, more telomerase means longer telomeres means slower aging. Just how did this happen? Daily meditation exercises led to "an increase in perceived control and a decrease in neuroticism," Singer explains of the research.

7. Be Optimistic

Similarly, approaching the world with an optimistic point of view may actually keep us physically young. Not only are female optimists "14 percent less likely to die from any cause and 30 percent less likely to die from coronary heart disease than the pessimists," according to a study by Hilary A. Tindle, an internist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine (and that's after controlling for about every factor you can conjure)—but new research shows that pessimists' telomeres are shorter than optimists'.

8. Hang Out With Friends

For decades, research has shown that having a supportive social network translates to remarkable physical benefits, including lowered risk for various diseases. Yet new research suggests that spending time with loved ones may even slow aging itself, says Singer. "The degree to which having emotional support, the perception that this exists and the reality of its being there, basically means that your brain is bathed in lesser amounts of stress hormones," Teresa Seeman, a stress researcher at UCLA told the author. And fewer stress hormones mean fewer stubby telomeres.

9. Sleep

While scientists haven't yet conducted research directly linking sleep to telomere length, existing sleep research suggests that the fewer Zs we get, the faster we'll age. It works like this: People who are sleep-deprived have elevated levels of stress hormones, as well as suppressed immune function—and both go hand-in-hand with shorter telomeres and lower levels of telomerase.

10. Dance

Ever notice that older dancers look younger than their age? Singer may be biased on this one: She's a former dancer herself, and a longtime dance critic for the Boston Globe. But studies suggest that dancing into old age—particularly in a choreographed sort of way—can work wonders for our minds and bodies. Along with the mental workout that comes from learning new steps and routines, the exercise builds both endurance and strength, and usually facilitates social interaction, giving us a multi-dimensional positive boost. Unless, of course, your two left feet stress you out.

Danielle Friedman is a homepage editor and reporter for The Daily Beast. Previously, she spent five years working as a nonfiction book editor for Hudson Street Press and Plume, two imprints of Penguin Group. She's a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.