Stay Young Longer By Taking Care Of This Tiny Part Of Your DNA

Photographed by Rus Anson.
Have you ever noticed that some people seem to age more slowly than others? They look younger, they have more energy, and they manage to deal with fewer diseases — from the flu to cancer — than the rest of their age group. Those people have something in common, experts say: They have healthier telomeres. Telomeres are part of your DNA, and their influence on the ageing process is the subject of a new book by Noble Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD and her colleague and co-author Elissa Epel, PhD, called The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer. We spoke with Blackburn to learn more.

What is a telomere?

“Telomeres are the protective tips at the end of DNA,” Blackburn tells Refinery29. “An easy way to think of them is to think of your shoelace, which has a tip at the end which is protective and often made of plastic. If you don’t have that tip, then the shoelace frays away.” We can think of DNA, the genetic material on our chromosomes, as shoelaces in the cells all over our bodies, Blackburn says. “When the tips fray away, which they tend to do over the life of a person, then the cells can’t work properly or replenish tissues through your life as well as if they cells did have good telomere inside them,” she says.

What do telomeres do?

In short: They protect your DNA. Maintaining your DNA health starting at a young age will help you stay young throughout your life, according to The Telomere Effect, staving off what the authors call the “diseasespan” later in life. Minding your telomeres not only helps you stay looking younger for longer, but it also bolsters the immune system and reduces fatigue. It can be the difference between having a diseasespan that starts in your 50s and lasts until you die and having one that begins in your 80s and primarily affects you when you're very old.

What can you do to keep your telomeres healthy?

When it comes to telomeres, long is good and short is bad. You can help them grow by eating a healthy diet, exercising, dealing appropriately with stress, and creating social support systems, among other healthy habits, the authors say. One clear move that helps: avoiding sugary drinks like soda, sports drinks, and even those delicious flavoured lattes. “The refined sugar effects were particularly clear in large studies of thousands of people in the U.S., looking at sugared soda consumption,” Blackburn says. “They found the effects on telomeres were comparable in size to what’s seen with smoking.” She explains that the rush of sugar into your bloodstream when you drink these sugary confections causes symptoms of metabolic syndrome, which is a group of risk factors (including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, body fat around the waist, and high blood sugar) that indicate you are in danger of contracting an array of diseases, from heart disease to diabetes to stroke. Eating a diet that minimises refined sugars and packs in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, legumes, and omega-3 fatty acids can help “reduce oxidative stress, inflammation, and insulin resistance,” Blackburn says. But this isn't about losing weight (thankfully!): Blackburn did not find that weight was a factor in telomere length or growth. In fact, healthy people who are overweight sometimes have better telomere health than thin people who have unhealthy eating habits.

Do telomeres make you look younger, too?

Healthy telomeres won't reverse the ageing process once it starts — for example, there are no studies that show that improving your telomere health will un-grey your hair or eliminate your wrinkles. But telomere-friendly habits can help stave off the beginning of these ageing signs, and improving your telomere health can cause the DNA that makes your skin firm and plump to begin producing more and healthier cells, slowing ageing down.

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