Molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn shared a Nobel Prize for her research on telomeres — structures at the tips of chromosomes that play a key role in cellular aging. But she was frustrated that important health implications of her work weren’t reaching beyond academia.

So along with psychologist Elissa Epel, she has published her findings in a new book aimed at a general audience — laying out a scientific case that may give readers motivation to keep their new year’s resolutions to not smoke, eat well, sleep enough, exercise regularly, and cut down on stress.

The main message of “The Telomere Effect,” being published Tuesday, is that you have more control over your own aging than you may imagine. You can actually lengthen your telomeres — and perhaps your life — by following sound health advice, the authors argue, based on a review of thousands of studies.

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“Telomeres listen to you, they listen to your behaviors, they listen to your state of mind,” said Blackburn, president of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif.

Telomeres sit at the end of strands of DNA, like the protective caps on shoelaces. Stress from a rough lifestyle will shorten those caps, making it more likely that cells will stop dividing and essentially die.

Too many of these senescent cells accelerates human aging, the pair say. This doesn’t cause any particular disease, but research suggests that it hastens the time when whatever your genes have in store will occur — so if you’re vulnerable to heart disease, you’re more likely to get it younger if your telomeres are shorter, said Epel, director of the University of California, San Francisco’s Aging, Metabolism and Emotions Center.

“We can provide a new level of specificity and tell people more precisely with clues emerging from telomere science, what exactly about exercise is related to long telomeres, what exact foods are related to long telomeres, what aspects of sleep are more related to long telomeres,” Epel added.

Other researchers in the field praised Blackburn and Epel’s efforts to make telomere research relevant to the general public, though several warned that it risked oversimplifying the science.

“I think it’s a very difficult thing to prove conclusively” that lifestyle can affect telomere length and therefore lifespan, said Harvard geneticist and anti-aging researcher David Sinclair. “To get cause-effect in humans is impossible, so it’s based on associations.”

Judith Campisi, an expert on cellular aging at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, Calif., said the underlying research is solid. “If you have a terrible diet and you smoke, you’re definitely shortening your life, and shortening your telomeres,” she said.

Short telomeres increase the likelihood of cells becoming senescent and producing molecules that lead to inflammation, which she said is a huge risk factor for every age-related disease. “So there is a link there,” Campisi said, “it’s just not this exclusive magic bullet, that’s all.”

Cells can age in different ways, so someone could have lots of aging cells but normal-looking telomeres. “If all aging was due to telomeres, we would have solved the aging problem a long time ago,” she said.

Blackburn & Epel
Elizabeth Blackburn (left) and Elissa Epel, authors of “The Telomere Effect.” Digital Natives

In a telephone interview from her publisher’s office in New York, Blackburn said the best part of the telomere research is that it’s quantifiable, giving people more specific direction than the advice your mother may have given you to get off the couch and exercise.

“Your mother didn’t tell you if you had to run marathons every week, or if three to four times a week is enough,” she said. Telomere research suggests that extreme exercise isn’t necessary to live healthier longer.

Also, Blackburn said, her research suggests that lengthening telomeres with medications could be dangerous — that lifestyle changes are far safer than a pill.

One surprise from the research: You don’t actually need a full eight hours of sleep to benefit your telomeres. Seven is enough, as long as you feel well-rested. “That’s something quite useful, so people won’t lie awake fretting that they’re not getting eight hours,” Blackburn said.

One of the challenges with telomere research is that most studies measure the length of telomeres in blood cells. But it may be that the liver is aging faster or slower than the blood — we’re not all one age throughout, Campisi said.

By measuring telomere length in the blood, “what you’re really reporting on is the capacity of immune stem cells to function well,” said Matt Kaeberlein, who studies the molecular basis of aging at the University of Washington. “What this may be really telling us is the immune system may be particularly sensitive to lifestyle and environmental factors.”

Kaeberlein said he’s only at the periphery of telomere research, but is skeptical about the predictive value of shorter versus longer telomeres.

“It’s not at all clear whether the methods are quantitative enough or of high enough resolution to really make those kinds of arguments,” Kaeberlein said. “I think it has the potential to be a biomarker predicting health outcomes, but I don’t know that I would feel comfortable saying people should make lifestyle changes based on a measure of their telomere length,” he said.

Sara Gottfried did. A Harvard-trained gynecologist in Berkeley, Calif., she said a test of her telomere length put her 20 years beyond her biological age, and shocked her into action.

“It was an interesting anecdotal experiment,” said Gottfried, whose examination led to a book, due out in March, called “Younger: A Breakthrough Program to Reset Your Genes, Reverse Aging, and Turn Back the Clock 10 Years.” “It organized my thinking around the levers of health span — food, sleep, exercise, lean body mass, stress — how so many of us are in a failure state, which I think accelerates aging.”

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  • To those who doubt epigenetics:
    Epigenetics refers to modifications in genetic expression – it is a new area of research and because it upsets people’s conventional understanding of genetic determinism, some people are somewhat reluctant to accept it.
    However, a growing number of research studies continue to overwhelmingly support epigenetic mechanisms. You can get information about epigenetics from nature.com – for example:
    http://www.nature.com/nature/supplements/insights/epigenetics/

  • Telomere measuring companies are a scam! The CEOs are just greedy and hungry for more and more money and will tell lies to sell a test with no valid results.

  • Thank you for this article, as well as the various skeptical points of view. Nice reporting.
    The “clown college” comment is disrespectful– common sense isn’t evidence.

  • If you look at research, there are MANY factors affecting telomeres, but (one of) the most potent seem to be periods of fasting. In animal studies alternate-day-eating almost doubled their life expectancy. We know cells largely stop dividing during (prolonged) fasting (Evolutionary: To survive the famine) so the telemores are spared. I have applied fasting (op to 45 days at a time) for almost 40 years on my patients now. Zero mortality. Unexpectedly good responses. I fast for 30-60 hours weekly. Biological age now more than 20% lagging chronological age.. This definitely needs more research.

  • Not close yet. Ageing is a simple deficiency. Think. Peripheral non-muscle cells are the first to show signs of ageing and muscles are generally the last to die. The deficiency is fat soluble which means that muscle activity can demand the nutrient and many other fat soluble nutrients to the detriment of non-muscle cells. The exception is the liver where some nutrient processing takes place and where fresh nutrients from diet get stored. Is it a surprise that your liver can regrow? When you read about the nutrient it will state many times that it is critical to life and then it is ignored. Remember that is a finite nutrient which means that there is not enough to go around. The best part about the nutrient is that it is on the store shelf and results can be observed by anyone. Happy thinking.

    • Everyone wants to blame “deficiency”. Why? Because it is easy to market “supplements”. Money to be made. But in our world we suffer from excesses MUCH more than “deficiencies”. Too much energy (Obesity), too much medicine (meta-reactions), too much vitamins (keeps malignant cells alive), too much of just about everything. Our evolutionary heritage has been moulded by regular famine and our genome is adapted to this. The most important function of preaching “deficiency” is so that your money can move to where it belongs: The bank accounts of the pharmaceutical industry.

  • So if you have a crap diet, drink like a fish & smoke like a train, you age quickly. Did this woman actually graduate a university or some clown college? Basic common sense.

    Genes go a ways to helping you age slower. Look at your family. However, genes can’t compensate if you’re a moron about your own health.

    • Yes it’s obvious that poor health choices lead to a reduced lifespan. It’s also obvious that the goal of research is to learn reliable hows and whys. It’s really easy to dismiss research as trivial or obvious but we never know what will lead to a breakthrough, or what increment will lead to another increment which will then lead to a breakthrough. The reality is that most progress really comes down to lots of small steps which by themselves don’t look like they’re doing much. You don’t watch someone take only 3 steps in a marathon and call them a fool and turn away. “Why are they running here when the finish line is way over there!”

      The thing I find valuable in this kind of research is learning that people have more control than previously thought. Huge numbers of people tend to use factors which are out of their control as an excuse not to act at all, you’ve seen it first hand. Genetics specifically is an area which so many use as an excuse not to act at all. “This runs in my family, it’s not my fault!” Meanwhile they still do things which make that problem which runs in their family even worse than it could be if they tried. Best-or-nothing.

    • Bill. Genetics. It is that simple. What genes? Well unless one can coat those genes in tungsten it won’t matter if you’ve every single “good” gene for aging if you snort coke 4 days of the week, smoke 3 packs a day, and can consume enough booze to put a normal person down & out for the day and yet you’re still looking for more.

      This will be the same hyped up garbage that followed breastfed children = smarter kids. Well unfortunately for people who can’t read the “small print” such a concept actually does nothing if the mother does NOT carry a specific gene. You can bath the kid in breast milk but if mama doesn’t have the gene it’ll still be thick as a brick.

    • James: Genes explain only a small fraction of health outcomes. Even for conditions like schizophrenia, genes appear to explain only about 0.001 percent of outcomes – check out the following article: https://theconversation.com/there-are-no-schizophrenia-genes-heres-why-57294
      Also see studies by Bruce Lipton. Additionally, other studies have shown that the practice of mindfulness meditation down-regulates genes implicated in inflammation (RIPK2, COX2 and several histone deacetylase genes) – see: http://news.wisc.edu/study-reveals-gene-expression-changes-with-meditation/

    • @Terry – I studied epigenetics in university. Which is why I find such “studies” comical. If you didn’t figure it your diet can change your gene expression. PCOS for example, for women, isn’t a wide scaling problem because more often than not you require certain “criteria” [such as obsesity] to trigger it. But every woman still possesses the potential to develop PCOS………… These studies are designed to appeal to average joe… idiot… but anyone with a scientific background are just rolling their eyes saying “good find darling, you coined common sense”….. Isn’t it such a shame how nowadays common sense among average joe is something so utterly hard to find.

  • I wish I had waited until there were actual prescriptions for the test results. My results had no meaning because they are just arbitrary test results.

  • I recently came across the following article that has shown mindfulness meditation leads to favorable changes in telomerase activity:
    Schutte, Nicola S., and John M. Malouff. A meta-analytic review of the effects of mindfulness meditation on telomerase activity. Psychoneuroendocrinology 42 (2014): 45-48.

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