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Could your thoughts make you age faster?

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Researchers are finding that your mental patterns could be harming your telomeres — essential parts of the cell’s DNA — and affecting your life and health. Nobel-winning scientist Elizabeth Blackburn and health psychologist Elissa Epel explain.

How can one person bask in the sunshine of good health, while another person looks old before her time? Humans have been asking this question for millennia, and recently, it’s becoming clearer and clearer to scientists that the differences between people’s rates of aging lie in the complex interactions among genes, social relationships, environments and lifestyles. Even though you are born with a particular set of genes, the way you live can influence how they express themselves. Some lifestyle factors may even turn genes on or shut them off.

Deep within the genetic heart of all our cells are telomeres, or repeating segments of noncoding DNA that live at the ends of the chromosomes. They form caps at the ends of the chromosomes and keep the genetic material from unraveling. Shortening with each cell division, they help determine how fast a cell ages. When they become too short, the cell stops dividing altogether. This isn’t the only reason a cell can become senescent — there are other stresses on cells we don’t yet understand very well — but short telomeres are one of the major reasons human cells grow old. We’ve devoted most of our careers to studying telomeres, and one extraordinary discovery from our labs (and seen at other labs) is that telomeres can actually lengthen.

What this means: aging is a dynamic process that could possibly be accelerated or slowed — and, in some aspects, even reversed. To an extent, it has surprised us and the rest of the scientific community that telomeres do not simply carry out the commands issued by your genetic code. Your telomeres are listening to you. The foods you eat, your response to challenges, the amount of exercise you get, and many other factors appear to influence your telomeres and can prevent premature aging at the cellular level. One of the keys to enjoying good health is simply doing your part to foster healthy cell renewal.

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    • Guest Nicole
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