Science teaches that aging is a genetically directed phenomenon which is greatly impactedby the way we live – perhaps by as much as fifty percent. And the science also reveals thatpsychology – particularly the way in which we deal with and internalize stress is a dominant determinative of optimal and/or premature aging. Doctors Blackburn and Epel have written aneasy to read and highly informative New York Times best-selling book on the biology-psychology of aging: The Telomere Effect.
Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn won the Nobel Prize in 2009 for her work in discovering telomerase - an enzyme which has the ability to positively affect aging; and in a limited fashion – reverse aging. Aging is marked and affected by the length of genetic material known as telomere. As Dr. Blackburn and Elissa Epel, PhD explain in the Telomere Effect, telomeres protect human DNA from being degraded. Degradation of telomeres and DNA causes genetic dysfunction – early on-set aging, disease, and death.
Science shows that telomere length is partly genetically inherited. So health and lifespan is partly a function of genetics. But on the other side of the coin, Dr. Blackburn’s groundbreaking work shows that there are environmental determinants of aging, particularly the human body’s ability to provide an opposition to aging –we have the ability to lengthen the telomere and so lengthen life. Telomerase lengthens telomeres.
The Telomere Effect recounts studies demonstrating the direct biological correlation between psychological stress, and early on-set aging and disease – in some cases with direct measurable effects on telomere length Individuals with high stress and corresponding stress response – anticipating negative outcomes - had the shortest telomeres. So it is both stress and coping with stress that impacts biological aging.
Telomerase, the enzyme lengthening telomeres, impacting aging, is optimized by eliminating the biological stress response. Dr. Epel in discussing their work, suggests that health and aging is substantially connected to “stress-response” the degree to which stress negatively impacts us through markers associated with pre-mature biological aging such as cortisone, restricted arteries etc. Dr. Epel provides a pneumonic for “stress” R & R, red being stress and rumination on the stress. This unhealthy response repeated over time, has the likelihood of causing demonstrable pre-mature aging and disease.
“Healthy living” provides for optimal aging. One central component of aging and health is psychological: reducing or eliminating the biological stress response. The conclusion is that managing stress will result in measurable and optimal aging. The healthy response is mindfulness – the time zone of now. Acting within the moment to plan and achieve goals absent rumination.
Having a purpose in life – a belief that what you do matters - is shown to be centrally determinative in reducing the biological stress response because this provides for a sense of well-being. Similarly, having self-compassion – learning from mistakes, but not taking it personally, is a critical component to good biological aging. Social cohesion is discussed as essential. Depression and anxiety may have a profound negative effect on biological aging particularly where the stress response prevails over time.
So, mental health, positively managing psychological stress, is biologically imperative. And there are ways we can impact the stress response positively.
Blackburn and Epel, The Telomere Effect, Grand Central Publishing (2017)
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 The Torah prescription to long life is to honor your parents and in the same vein the Torah advises keeping the mitzvoth lengthens our days. The Torah’s direct statement on aging is corroborated by scientific work. We have the ability to lengthen our days. This was a profound scientific achievement discovered in 2009. If considered, the Torah prescription is borne out by recent science.