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Protect Your Telomeres to Live Longer

by Beth on July 26th, 2017

I recently attended the World Congress on Positive Psychology in Montreal, Canada. It was exciting to hear about the latest research being done in the field. I was especially intrigued by the studies that Elissa Epel presented regarding the effects of stress on cellular aging.

Epel and her colleague, Elizabeth Blackburn, have written a book called The Telomere Effect. In it they describe the role of telomeres in the aging process and identify positive psychology interventions that can protect telomeres to slow disease and lengthen lives.

Telomeres are protective end caps on our DNA. The process of cell division causes them to shorten throughout our lives, but stress and other conditions can make them shorten more rapidly. The shorter our telomeres, the higher our risk of disease, including heart disease, cancer, and dementia, which leads to a shorter life.

Epel discussed her research on parents experiencing the stress of caring for chronically sick children. Results show that the way we respond to stress affects our telomeres. According to diary entries, caregivers who ruminated more about their situation, demonstrating a threat response to stress rather than a challenge response, had shorter telomeres. Caregivers who participated in a mindfulness retreat showed a significant increase in the length of their telomeres in just three weeks!

Here are some other steps you can take to protect your telomeres:

  • Be social. Social connections lower your stress levels, which prevents telomere shortening.
  • Move. Sedentary behavior is associated with shorter telomeres. Exercise appears to have the greatest impact when you are stressed.
  • Get enough sleep. People who sleep more, at least seven hours, have longer telomeres.
  • Look on the bright side. Optimism is strongly associated with longer telomeres.
  • Eat a Mediterranean diet. Foods that lower inflammation, like vegetables, fruits, fatty fish, olive oil, and nuts, prevent telomere shortening.
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