Can Our Thoughts Age Us?
BY ELIZABETH BLACKBURN AND ELISSA EPEL
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.
People who score high on measures of cynical hostility tend to get more cardiovascular disease, metabolic disease and often die at younger ages.
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.
People who score high on measures of cynical hostility have shorter telomeres.
Scientists have learned that several thought patterns appear to be unhealthy for telomeres, and one of them is cynical hostility. Cynical hostility is defined by high anger and frequent thoughts that other people cannot be trusted. Someone with hostility doesn’t just think, “I hate to stand in long lines at the grocery store”; they think, “That other shopper deliberately sped up and beat me to my rightful position in the line!” — and then seethe. People who score high on measures of cynical hostility tend to get more cardiovascular disease, metabolic disease and often die at younger ages. They also have shorter telomeres. In a study of British civil servants, men who scored high on measures of cynical hostility had shorter telomeres than men whose hostility scores were low. The most hostile men were 30 percent more likely to have a combination of short telomeres and high telomerase (an enzyme in cells that helps keep telomeres in good shape) — a profile that seems to reflect the unsuccessful attempts of telomerase to protect telomeres when they are too short.
Aging is a dynamic process that could possibly be accelerated or slowed — and, in some aspects, even reversed
These men had the opposite of a healthy response to stress. Ideally, your body responds to stress with a spike in cortisol and blood pressure, followed by a quick return to normal levels. Instead, when these men were exposed to stress, their diastolic blood pressure and cortisol levels were blunted, a sign their stress response was, basically, broken from overuse. Their systolic blood pressure increased, but instead of returning to normal levels, it stayed elevated for a long time afterward. The hostile men also had fewer social connections and less optimism. In terms of their physical and psychosocial health, they were highly vulnerable to an early disease-span, the years in a person’s life marked by the diseases of aging, which include cardiovascular disease, arthritis, a weakened immune system and more. Women tend to have lower hostility, and it’s less related to heart disease for them, but there are other psychological culprits affecting women’s health, such as depression.
When you ruminate, stress sticks around in the body long after the reason for the stress is over.
Pessimism is the second thought pattern that has been shown to have negative effects on telomeres. When our research team conducted a study on pessimism and telomere length, we found that people who scored high on a pessimism inventory had shorter telomeres. This was a small study of about 35 women, but similar results have been found in other studies, including a study of over 1,000 men. It also fits with a large body of evidence that pessimism is a risk factor for poor health. When pessimists develop an aging-related illness, like cancer or heart disease, the illness tends to progress faster. Like cynically hostile people — and people with short telomeres, in general — they tend to die earlier.
Featured photo credit: Digital Natives
Elizabeth Blackburn was awarded a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2009 for her pioneering work in discovering the molecular nature of telomeres. She is president of the Salk Institute.
Elissa Epel is a health psychologist who studies stress, aging and obesity. She is the director of UCSF’s Aging, Metabolism and Emotions Center and is associate director of the Center for Health and Community