We all want to live as long as possible. Eighty years, 90, maybe a little over 100? Daily life may be boring and challenging, but when it comes to negotiating our actual time on Earth, we all want just a bit more than we get. But it’s not just the quantity of years that matters. It’s the quality of life that makes it or breaks it. A long life of good health and ever-lasting energy is significantly different than a long life of ailments and chronic fatigue.
We’ve all seen these examples in life. An eighty-year-old woman with a vibrant life, an energy supply enough to get her through a day of household chores and a night of social activities, looking not a year older than sixty. And, in contrast, a fifty-five-year-old woman constantly complaining about one ailment or another, struggling to get through the day at the office and not having energy for anything else once she gets home. Why are people so different? What makes some people so young-looking and strong, and others so fragile and disease-prone? (Your best defense against the #1 cause of aging.)
Of course, one side of the story is the body and health that we inherit from our parents. There are families with chronic diseases running across generations, and there are clans of longevity champions who live far into their 80s and 90s. How we live and what we do also matters. Take any health condition—some of the risk factors are modifiable and completely depend on the lifestyle you have. This gives some hope that longevity is, somewhat, with our reach.
Reversing the genetics of aging
If you follow aging research, you should be familiar with telomeres, which are caps at the end of each of our chromosomes in every single cell of our body. They protect the genetic material in the chromosomes and are vital for maintaining all health functions. The problem is, as cells divide, the telomeres shorten. The rate at which telomeres shorten and wear down ultimately dictates the way our cells age, which translates into how well or how poorly we age.
This may seem like a cul-de-sac with no way out. But actually, there is one.
After decades of rigorous research on telomeres, scientists around the globe have made a breakthrough discovery: Telomeres can be lengthened, which means aging can not only be accelerated but also slowed down and even, in some ways, reversed. (The hidden secret that helps the Ikarians “fight aging.”)
Elizabeth Blackburn, a molecular biologist who won a Nobel Prize for her research on telomeres, and Elissa Epel, a health psychologist specializing on the impact of stress (particularly how stress accelerates aging), suggest that telomeres aren’t just executing the instructions coded by our genes—they are also attuned to the instructions that we give them. Our lifestyle and the way we go about our daily life can actually promote cellular aging—or prevent premature aging at the cellular level.
Here are some of the aspects of telomere-friendly living that Blackburn and Epel share in their book The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer:
- Identify sources of intense stress in your life and see how you can modify them.
- Treat obstacles and threats as challenges.
- Develop self-compassion and compassion for other people.
- Engage in activities that restore your mind.
- Practice mindfulness and thought awareness. Awareness is a key to well-being.
- Stay active.
- Get into a routine to get a better, high-quality sleep.
- Eat smart to avoid overeating and not fall victim to cravings.
- Eat telomere-friendly food, like whole foods and omega-3s.
- Take time to unplug every day.
- Cultivate good close relationships.
- Give your children quality attention and a healthy dose of “good stress.”
- Participate in local events and help strangers.
- Don’t lose touch with nature.
As you can tell, these are all pieces of the puzzle of a stress-free fulfilling life. That’s how we want our old age to be. But it seems that to get there, we need to have a proper foundation. And it’s up to us to lay it.
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