Telomeres. They’re the key players in the aging process; essential parts of your cells’ DNA that determine how quickly your cells age. They’re the biological equivalent of a hairdresser who chops off more than you bargained for, leaving you wishing you could go back to the good old days when you actually looked like yourself.
And it turns out, that without realizing it, you might be giving these annoying microscopic culprits a hand; granting them permission to go ‘chop-chop-chop’. Here’s how I found out.
As I often do, I lost my Mom in the grocery store. I paced along the checkouts looking right to check the aisles when I caught a glimpse of an arm of her bright red jacket. She was unhelpfully stood at the end of one of the aisles, along the narrow bit where I could barely see her.
As I walked down the aisle, I signaled to confirm I found the tofu. But she stopped me in my tracks. Her eyes wide open, as if to shout ‘stop’, she held out her hand implying I stay away.
My immediate assumption of course was, she must be being held at gunpoint. I pictured the armed robbery scene in Four Brothers and thought, this is the closest I’ll ever be to Mark Wahlberg.
My panic lasted for three seconds, after which I realized that everyone else in the store seemed to be going about their business. So why on earth was my Mom being so shifty, pretending to read the back of a cereal packet like she cares what a calorie is?
My curiosity gave in and I walked towards her. Slowly — you never know. As I got closer, I realized she was standing next to a couple of strangers. Strangely close actually, especially given the current climate. I should’ve known. At the expense of giving me a heart attack, my Mom was just eavesdropping.
Noticing my unapologetically judgemental look, we walked away.
“What the hell was that? What was so important you had to spy on a couple of strangers?”
She explained that apparently, they were doctors, and they were talking about how the pandemic could be causing people to age more quickly. It has something to do with our thoughts. The very things we’re thinking about could be making us age quicker.
Incredulous, I looked this up when I got home. And it turns out, they might be on to something.
According to Nobel Prize-winning scientists Elizabeth Blackburn and health psychologist Elissa Epel, when it comes to good health and longevity, it’s not really a question of nature vs nurture; it’s the interaction. Even though we’re born with a particular set of genes, our lifestyles, and our environment influence how these genes are expressed.
The telomeres I referred to earlier are repeating segments of non-coding DNA that live on the ends of our chromosomes. They act like a cap that stops the genetic material from unravelling; like the bow at the end of a shoelace. But inevitably, they shorten with each cell division. Once the telomeres become too short, the cell stops dividing altogether.
Imagine your shoelaces are particularly fragile; a tiny piece breaks off every time you tie your shoes. So, the more you wear them, the smaller the bow you can tie each time. Until there comes a point where the shoelace becomes so short that you can’t tie it. Your laces unravel and it’s time to kiss your shoes goodbye (assuming for the purpose of the analogy that we can’t replace shoelaces).
Thankfully, these women have spent their entire careers studying telomeres to understand their impact on the aging process, and they’ve discovered that telomeres can actually lengthen. This means aging isn’t a one-way ride at a constant speed. Aging could be accelerated, slowed down, and even reversed!
A range of factors come into play; the usual culprits like diet, stress, exercise. But scientists have now found that telomeres even consider certain thinking patterns unhealthy. Here are four of the ones you should fervently avoid:
1. Cynical Hostility
Cynical hostility means having high levels of anger and a general mistrust in other people. It’s going beyond thoughts like “I wish the person in front of me would speed up” to “I bet the person in front of me is deliberately blocking my path to slow me down.”
In a study conducted with a group of British civil servants, the most hostile men were 30% more likely to have short telomeres. These men had unhealthy responses to stress. Their biological response to stress didn’t follow the usual response, whereby a momentary spike in cortisol and blood pressure is followed by a quick return back to normal. Their stress response was essentially broken from overuse; their blood pressure quickly increased but remained elevated for a long time.
In a study conducted by Blackburn and Epel, they found people who scored high on a pessimism inventory had shorter telomeres, and similar studies have produced similar results. They found that when pessimists develop an ageing-related illness, like cancer or heart disease, their illness tends to get worse, faster. These people too have shorter telomeres and tend to die faster.
Pessimists tend to have less positive and more negative expectations of the future. One way to assess your level of pessimism is through the Revised Life Orientation Test (LOT-R), which involves testing your level of agreement with statements such as “In uncertain times, I usually expect the best; I don’t get upset too easily; and, I rarely count on good things happening to me.”
Before you give it a try, I advise you ask a friend or family member to show you the questions section. Read the remaining information only once you’ve answered the questions.
There’s a fine line between reflection and rumination. The former is perfectly healthy, the latter is not. Reflecting involves introspective analysis about why certain things happen. Rumination is the pointless dwelling over issues with no solution; the redundant worries and resentful emotions that all too often keep us up at night.
When you ruminate, the stress response described above in part 1 sticks around in the body long after the stressor is over; your blood pressure remains high, your heart rate remains elevated and your body is pooled with high levels of cortisol. The problem is, your vagus nerve, which is responsible for keeping you calm and your heart rate steady, becomes inactive and remains so long after the initial stress-trigger.
In short, people who ruminate tend to suffer from more anxiety and depression, which are in turn associated with short telomeres.
4. Thought Suppression
Next time someone asks whether you “want to talk about it”, it might be worth taking them up on the offer. The late Daniel Wegener, social psychologist at Harvard, coined a phenomenon called ironic error. He found the more you push your thoughts away, the louder they call your attention.
Your efforts to suppress negative thoughts could actually backfire; instead of less stress you could end up with more. In one study, scientists found greater avoidance of negative feelings and thoughts was associated with shorter telomeres. The act of suppressing negative thoughts won’t itself cause them to shorten, but the increased probability of suffering chronic stress and depression can both shorten your telomeres.
There is however one final thought pattern thought to promote stress resilience and help suppress the negative thought patterns outlined above.
5. Mind Wandering
Harvard University Psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert used a “track your happiness” iPhone app to ask thousands of people questions about how happy they were, what activities they were engaged in and what their minds were thinking. They observed people spend half their time thinking about things unrelated to the activity they’re doing. In other words, they’re daydreaming; their minds are wandering. And what they discovered was that during these moments, people generally felt less happy than they did when they were engaged. Some mind wandering can of course be creative and productive, but negative thoughts, wishing they were somewhere else, or negative mind wandering was likely to lead to unhappiness.
In response, together with Eli Putterman, Blackburn and Epel conducted a study in which they found, women with a greater tendency to mind-wander had shorter telomeres than those who didn’t. They concluded negative thoughts, generally associated with the past, are more likely to increase levels of resting stress hormones.
The difficulty in controlling our thought patterns is that they generally seem to just ‘come up’. We don’t know what we’re about to think until we think it.
Have you ever been to a workout class and heard the instructor yell “breathe!”? Until that moment you probably hadn’t even thought about breathing. You’re alive so you can safely assume you were breathing. But you weren’t thinking about it. It’s just something your body does.
Similarly, we don’t generally think about thinking. Our thoughts just happen. Oftentimes our response is automatic, quick and subconscious. It just happens. So it’s not easy to learn to control our thoughts. But becoming more aware of them certainly helps provide clarity.
Activities like meditation, journaling, swimming, and long-distance running help promote better thought awareness, and better thought awareness can promote stress resilience, reducing the rate at which your telomeres shorten.
You can eat all the broccoli you want, and go for daily a hike, but if your mind is littered with negative thoughts, your efforts to stay fit and healthy might not be having the impact you think.
As much as I will continue to spread the snail slime I was gifted for Christmas on my face (just in case), I invite you to join me in my efforts to become more self-aware.
Next time you find yourself tossing and turning, unable to get to sleep, practice mindfulness. When someone cuts in front of you in line, practice empathy. And when your gym instructor reminds you to breathe…well, keep breathing.