Have you ever wondered why some people remain active and healthy well into old age, while others look and feel old when they’re still young? Chances are good that if you’re feeling older than you should these days, you’re paying way too much attention to the news.
Surrounded By Stress
If stress is the “loss of control, loss of predictability, and threat to … sense of self or physical self”1, there’s no doubt we’re living in stressful times:
- The renewed threat of nuclear weapons looms large
- Unclear direction on policies and legislation make it hard to plan for the future
- While politicians bicker, we grow more and more uncertain about who we can trust
- Reports of terrorist acts have become almost commonplace
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that the American Psychological Association’s January 2017 “Stress in America” survey revealed a 6.25% increase in the overall average reported stress level of Americans during a five-month period, the largest increase in ten years.2
Maybe it’s because we have a ringside seat to all of this, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in living color. Thanks to TV, radio and the Internet, we’re assaulted with images of terror, anger and hopelessness that are almost impossible to escape.
And this level of emotional strain does more than give us anxiety, grey hair and wrinkles. It damages and ages our bodies at a cellular level.
Thanks to mirror neurons, our brains respond to seeing other people’s actions as though they’re happening to us. When we watch footage of a terrorist attack happening half a world away, our nervous system responds as if we’re right in the middle of it.
Our telomeres get a little shorter. Our cells die a little more. We move into old age far more quickly than we should.
Furthermore, if cells in your blood vessels are dying, you’re more vulnerable to strokes and heart attack. If it’s your white blood cells, you’re going to get sick all the time. If it’s your brain cells, well, you’re going to lose mental sharpness, and the slide into senility or even Alzheimers will accelerate.
The Good News
Getting older doesn’t have to be “a one-way slippery slope toward infirmity and decay.”3
Drs. Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Eppel, authors of The Telomere Effect, have coined two phrases that can help us frame the idea of premature aging, and how to avoid it:
- Healthspan refers to the number of years someone stays active and healthy, regardless of chronological age. Someone with healthy telomeres can have a healthspan that lasts well into their eighties or even longer.
- Deathspan is the period of life we live with the declining health and physical limitations of old age. When telomeres are damaged, this period can begin at any age, depriving someone of years or even decades of health and vitality.
Fortunately, there are things you can do to protect your telomeres – which means increasing your healthspan, living a longer, more independent lifestyle well into your senior years, and slamming the brakes on aging!
Drs. Blackburn and Eppel have some suggestions:
- Understand that subjecting yourself to a steady diet of political controversy, frightening news and angry debate can shorten your healthspan. Make good choices about your ‘diet’ of news and media.
- Work to re-frame your view of negative situations by talking with a friend, taking a breath or just letting go of the need to be right about your point of view
- Practice mediation. It’s been shown to increase telomerase, the enzyme that replenishes telomeres
- Stay away from processed foods.
- Do some cardiovascular exercise regularly …. great for your telomeres!
- Get out and socialize. Neighborhoods without a sense of community, where neighbors don’t know each other or socialize, are bad for your telomeres4
Help Others By Helping Yourself
Science doesn’t yet fully understand the invisible connections that exist among all of our central nervous systems collectively. But there’s a good chance that, by reducing your own stress load and preserving your own telomeres, you’re also sending fewer stress signals into the world, and helping those around you live longer, healthier lives.
- Blackburn, Elizabeth, and Eppel, Elissa. “Stressed out by politics? It could be making your body age faster, too.” Quartz Media LLC. 16 March 2017.Web. 25 April 2017.
- “Many Americans stressed about future of our nation, new APA Stress in AmericaTM survey reveals.” www.apa.org. 15 February 2017. Web. 19 April 2017.
- Blackburn, Elizabeth and Eppel, Elissa. The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2017. Amazon.com. Web. 19 April 2017, 4
- Blackburn and Eppel, 11.