A Look at the Aging Process—and What to Do About it—from a Nobel Prize-Winning Biologist

Did you catch this?

Last December, biologist, Nobel Prize winner and all-around telomere-researching badass Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn gave a TED Talk on her research into aging and what causes telomeres to lengthen and shrink.

If “telomeres” is a foreign term to you, we encourage you to check out one of our many other posts on telomeres and the science surrounding aging. As Blackburn puts it, telomeres are “special segments of non-coding DNA at the end of chromosomes...Every time [a] cell divides and DNA is copied,” the telomeres shorten and get worn down. Blackburn adds that telomeres “keep the chromosome from fraying” and as they wear they begin to send signals to the cells that it’s ‘time to die.’” Cellular death is a big part of the aging process.

If Our Cells Dying Off Is Inevitable, How Do We Mitigate the Aging Process?

During her research, Blackburn noticed that the chromosomes of pond scum were not shortening as time passed the way human chromosomes do. In fact, ”sometimes they even got longer.”

This realization inspired the experiments Blackburn conducted along with student Carol W. Greider that led to their shared Nobel Prize. Through their research, Blackburn and Greider discovered that an enzyme called telomerase was responsible for lengthening telomeres in pond scum. When they removed telomerase from the pond scums cells, the cells died.

In essence, they found that telomere shortening “is aging us,” and that the longer your telomeres, “the better off you are.”

When telomeres get too short, skin cells die, leading to wrinkles and other signs of aging. Hair pigment is also impacted, explaining the presence of gray and white hairs as we get older.

Perhaps most concerning, however, is that the shorter your telomeres, the higher the likelihood you’ll get sick. Risks of developing cardiovascular diseases, some cancers, diabetes and other age-related diseases increase as telomere length decreases.

If Telomerase is the Golden Ticket to Combating Aging, Shouldn’t We All Down a Bunch of Telomerase Supplements?

As more researchers and news outlets spotlight the connection between telomeres and aging, an increasing number of telomerase supplements are appearing on the market. Indeed, taking a telomerase supplement to extend telomere length is a tempting conclusion from Blackburn’s research.

However, Blackburn herself warns viewers not to go crazy buying the largest tub of telomerase supplements on the market.

While it’s true that telomerase is correlated with stronger telomere maintenance, finding the right dose is a delicate and dangerous art. As Blackburn puts it, “when it comes to our telomerase, we humans live on a knife edge.” Too much telomerase may actually increase the risk of developing certain “rather nasty” cancers. As such, direct supplementation should be avoided or—at the very least—approached with extreme caution.

“We have control over the way we age all the way down in to our cells.”

So, what can we do to ensure optimal telomere maintenance?

Blackburn suggests it’s time to reevaluate how we handle stress. She came to this conclusion after working closely with psychologist Dr. Elissa Epel who was studying the effects of chronic stress on caregiving mothers at the time they met. By layering Blackburn's telomere research into the studies, Epel and Blackburn together found that long-term caregivers with a high perceived stress load not only appeared to age quicker, their telomeres also shortened at an above average rate. 

Citing this and several other studies researching the impact of chronic stress on telomere length, Blackburn notes that approach to handling stress is key: if you perceive stress as “a challenge to be tackled” rather than a persistent burden, “then blood flows to your heart and to your brain and you experience a brief but energizing spike of cortisol and thanks to that habitual ‘bring it on’ attitude, your telomeres do just fine.”

Blackburn mentions meditation as being particularly useful in handling stressful situations and, in turn, protecting telomere length.

She also discovered that external factors play a big role in our cells abilities’ to maintain their integrity. Indeed, our long-term health can be impacted by our environment as much as our own personal choices: “As early as childhood...exposure to violence, bullying and racism all impact telomeres and the effects are long-term…On the flip side, tight-knit communities, being in a marriage long-term, and lifelong friendships all improve telomere maintenance.”

Blackburn’s conclusions suggest that not only should we aim to put ourselves in environments that—quite literally—allow us to grow, we have some agency in how those around us age, as well. Being part of a positive place to live and work doesn’t just benefit you—it benefits everyone around you. Acting as an agent for positive change is a win-win situation.

Looking for More Advice on Graceful Aging?

SciLife BioSciences was started with the vision of helping our visitors and customers experience “youthful aging” to the greatest extent possible. Getting older on paper does not mean you need to feel worse year after year.

On this Healthy Living blog we strive to provide you with information to help you live your best, most vital life. In addition to Blackburn’s stress reduction tips mentioned above, we encourage you to stay active, eat healthy and sleep well.

We also offer one of the only multivitamins on the market specifically formulated with telomeres in mind without resorting to straight-up—often dangerous—telomerase supplementation. Using ingredients backed by peer-reviewed scientific studies, we created the VitaYears™ Anti-Aging Multivitamin with the explicit intent of helping our customers and patients feel awesome. We’ve been in the game of researching telomeres for years and are passionate about helping you make the rest of your life the best of your life.