During Adriane Gil's Unconscious Kitchen presentation at the SoulTech Connect: Eco-Warriors of Silicon Valley, she briefly explained how C60 studies have shown extended life spans in mice by lengthening telomeres. This really hit home for me and sparked a remembering of my science days. I have a B.S degree in Genetics, and I used to work for a lab on the same UCSF campus as Elizabeth Blackburn, the mother of telomere and telomerase research. She and her colleagues discovered telomere DNA, telomerase that synthesizes it, and the link between telomeres and aging. We know from science that the shortening of telomeres is responsible for aging. We also know that it's inevitable telomeres shorten as we get older. So when you really think about it, we're programmed to die. (Sorry, a bit morbid!) Although there may be no fountain of youth to actually reverse the aging process, the good news is that there are ways of maintaining telomere health in order to extend your life as long as possible.
There are different ways of looking at aging. Aging can be identified on a physical level, such as hair turning gray, loss of skin elasticity AKA wrinkles, metabolism slowing down, or feeling weaker due to muscle loss. Another way of looking at aging is by cognitive function. Forgetfulness, for example, is a normal symptom of aging. Understanding how telomeres work is a way of looking at how aging takes place on a cellular level.
During mitosis (DNA replication), strands of DNA in the nucleus condense to form chromosomes. The chromosomes are then split into two identical sister cells, but they aren't perfectly copied as they were in the mother cell. The chromosomes are actually shorter by 25-200 bases, and this is because the telomeric DNA shortens during each round of replication.
Imagine chromosomes as shoelaces. At the end of shoelaces are plastic ends that protect the fibers from unraveling. Similarly, telomeres are like protective caps at the end of chromosomes. They are repetitive, meaningless sequences (TTAGGG in humans) that don't code for anything, so we can afford to lose them during replication. The essential DNA is kept intact because of telomeres, but without them, the gene-coding DNA will be damaged. The RNA transcribed from DNA will be truncated as a result, which will then translate or synthesize proteins incorrectly.
Our cells don't live forever. Cells can go 50-70 rounds of cell division, but telomeric DNA is indefinite. Telomeres may be up to 3000 bases, but eventually telomeres shorten and shorten until they're totally stripped away. The cells then reach a point of cellular senescence by which they stop dividing. When cells die, this consequently affects the overall decline of our body's functions. Hence, aging.
Meditate for Anti-Aging... and Other Lifestyle Changes
Our telomeres shorten naturally, but internal and external stressors speed up the aging process in our bodies. Want to live a long life? Take care of both your health and well-being. Implementing lifestyle changes like getting more sleep, quitting smoking, eating better, exercising help maintain telomeres, and thus help you live longer and protect you from diseases and cancer. Furthermore, research has also found that meditation or some type of wellness routine supports telomere health.
Have you ever heard someone jokingly say how stress is taking a few years off his or her life? There's truth to that. Recent studies have shown that chronic stress, in addition to environmental factors and genetics, is linked to the shortening of telomeres. I found several articles in PubMed of research comparing telomere lengths between experimental groups that took part in stress-reduction regimens via meditation and mindfulness practices versus control groups that didn't participate in any. People who've been meditating for years not only have a higher percentage of longer telomere length but also telomere lengths significantly longer than people who didn't meditate at all. If reducing anxiety, increasing happiness, and improving cognitive functions weren't already enough reasons to meditate, now you have all the reason to meditate for a long, peaceful life!
Blackburn, Elizabeth H. and Elissa Epel. The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer. First edition. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2017.
Epel, Elissa et al. “Can Meditation Slow Rate of Cellular Aging? Cognitive Stress, Mindfulness, and Telomeres.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1172 (2009): 34–53. PMC. Web. 7 May 2018.