The conversations of life

You can’t stop ageing – but can you slow it down?


That’s the theory put forward by biologist Elizabeth Blackburn in a new TED talk that was posted online last week.

After years of research, she and her colleagues – who won the 2009 Nobel Prize for medicine for their discovery – concluded that we can primarily blame ageing on our chromosomes.

She explains that all the cells in our bodies carry chromosomes that are capped at either end by telomeres, which help to protect the chromosomes. But these telomeres wear down over time and eventually fall off – resulting in signs of ageing.

But there is good news according to Dr Blackburn. We do have some control over how short our telomeres get – and while you can’t extend your lifespan, you can make changes to live healthier for longer.

Living longer in better health

So what can we do?

  • Manage stress: more stress equals shorter telomeres so it’s important to find ways to cope with stress successfully. “Attitude matters,” Dr Blackburn says. “If you typically see something stressful as a challenge to be tackled, then blood flows to your heart and to your brain, and you experience a brief but energizing spike of cortisol.”
  • Meditate: we all hear about how good meditation is for you, but did you know it’s also been linked to – guess what – longer telomeres. In one study, researchers found carers of family members with dementia improved their telomeres with just 12 minutes of meditation a day.
  • Live in a close-knit community: Dr Blackburn points to emotional neglect, violence and bullying as all having negative effects on telomere health. So living in a tight-knit neighbourhood such as a retirement village could make a real difference.
  • Get married and keep your friends close: no surprise that marriage (although we assume only happy relationships) gets a big tick from Dr Blackburn for creating longer telomeres. Long-term friendships have also been proven to be beneficial.
  • And if you can, make lots of money: studies have also shown higher income influences telomere health.

Who says money can’t buy you happiness?

Watch the full TED talk here.

Annie Donaldson

With a background in nursing, Annie has spent over 20 years working in the health industry, including the coordination of medical support for international TV productions and major stadium events, plus education campaigns with a number of national health organisations. In recent years, she has also taken time out of the workforce to be a full-time carer, giving her first-hand experience of the challenges and rewards of this role.

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