How maintaining your telomeres can help you age healthily

By Adriana Barton

By the time we get wrinkles and grey hair, sayings like “age is just a number” start to sound a bit rosy. But on a biological level, there’s no doubt that some people age at a slower rate than others – and not just because they won the genetic lottery.

Elizabeth Blackburn, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who peers deep into human cells, insists that we have some control over how fast we decline.

How we eat, move, think and feel can either help keep our cells healthy or put them into early retirement, according to a growing body of research cited in her new book, The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer, published earlier this month.

How our cells age, it turns out, largely depends on the length of our telomeres, the protective caps at the ends of our chromosomes.

Tucked inside every cell, chromosomes carry our genetic information and help ensure DNA is accurately copied every time a cell divides. If chromosomes were shoelaces, telomeres would be the plastic tips that keep them from fraying.

But telomeres shorten with each cell division. And when they get too short, cells lose their ability to divide and renew the body tissues that depend on them. A lack of new cells in the walls of our blood vessels, for instance, could lead to hardening arteries, increasing the risk of heart attack.

The good news is that telomeres can lengthen, too. In 2009, a trio of molecular biologists – Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak – won the Nobel Prize for decoding the molecular nature of telomeres and discovering an enzyme called telomerase that can replenish them.

 

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