Age-prrof your body R
Newresearchsuggestswemayhavemore controloverageingthanwethink… ewinding the clock’ might be a term you’ve heard all too many times before, but groundbreaking new science might finally lead you to believe it’s no fairytale. Worlds away from the fluffy pro
Genetics vs epigenetics
Ever wondered why a friend, family member or neighbour of a similar age looks so much younger than you? ‘Good genes’ tends to be our automated response, quick to settle with the idea that such disparity is determined by nature and nature only. Essentially, we think, it’s out of our hands. A school of thought believed for millennia, there is still no denying that many of our precursors come from our parents.
However, more and more people are beginning to notice that the quality of our health and lifespan is shaped too by the way in which we live. In fact, new research suggests that around 90 per cent of the signs of ageing and disease are caused by lifestyle and environment, not genes. It’s a term called epigenetics, and it’s what Dr Sara Gottfried pegs as the key to extending your healthspan in her new book, Younger:the Breakthroughprogrammetoresetyourgenes andreverseageing. ‘Epigenetics concerns the interaction of genes with the environment leading to heritable changes in the way DNA is expressed in your body,’ she reveals. ‘Genetics loads the gun, and the environment pulls the trigger. Therefore, upgrade that 90 per cent to affect the genetic 10 per cent.’ The new buzzwo�d In order to understand how, we must look a little closer. Enter the latest buzzword on the
anti-ageing stage: telomeres, the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes in cells. (If your secondary-school biology is failing you right now, chromosomes carry the cell’s genetic information.) Likened to the tips of shoelaces – whereby if you lose the tip, the lace starts to fray – looking after your telomeres is one of the most effective ways to stave off the years. ‘We use measurements for telomeres as a biological marker for ageing,’ reveals Dr Rupy Aujla, blogger at thedoctorskitchen.com. ‘The ‘shortening’ of these telomeres is related to the process of ageing which renders us more susceptible to cancer mutations, inflammation and, yes, wrinkles!’
The punchline? Latest research has found that telomeres are responsive to many aspects of our daily life. How stressed we feel, the food we eat, the movement we undertake and the quality of our sleep can literally alter the length of our telomeres. And it’s keeping them long that can see us benefit from looking and feeling younger. Molecular biologist Dr Elizabeth Blackburn has dedicated her life to the field and won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology of Medicine for her discovery of telomeres, which now culminates in her new bookthe Telomereeffect, written alongside psychologist Dr Elissa Epel. The message of the book? ‘Our telomeres are responsive, listening, calibrating to the current circumstances in the world,’ say the pair.
Putting it into practice
Armed with the assurance that things are, actually, very much in our hands, these pioneering findings can be translated into everyday life – and it’s easier than you might think. ‘You control your exposures, whether it be diet, environment or behaviours, by your daily habits of body and mind, both conscious and unconscious,’ explains Dr Gottfried. ‘Managing your exposome [everything you’re exposed to] by making practical lifestyle tweaks allows for a more personalised approach to preventing disease and unnecessary ageing.’ Want to keep your telomeres in good nick? Here’s where to start...
Change your attitude to st�ess
During their studies, Elizabeth and Elissa found stress and depression to be the two driving forces behind shortening telomeres. Chronic, lasting stress equals shorter telomeres but, perhaps more interestingly, so too does the way wedealwith these stresses. ‘A predominant habitual threat response can, over time, work itself into your cells and grind down your telomeres,’ reveals Elissa. ‘A predominant challenge response [almost like a “bring it on” attitude], though, may shield your telomeres from some of the worst effects of chronic stress.’ It may be easier said than done, but making a conscious effort to rewire the way we react to stressful situations could be one of the most important and beneficial changes we could make in the quest to slow ageing. ‘The challenge response is not a falsely chipper, gee-i’m-so-
happy-that-stressful-things-are-happeningto-me attitude,’ say the pair. ‘It is the knowledge that even though times may be difficult, you can shape stress to your purpose.’
Switch your mindset
‘Scientists are learning that certain thought patterns are unhealthy for telomeres,’ explain Dr Blackburn and Dr Epel. ‘Cynical hostility is linked to shorter telomeres. So is pessimism. Other thought patterns, including mind wandering, rumination, and thought suppression, may also lead to telomere damage.’ Of course such hard-wired negative thinking can’t be changed overnight, nor by simply ordering yourself to stop. They, instead, encourage ‘resilient thinking’, which they claim can stabilise or even lengthen our telomeres. ‘Resilient thinking is encompassed in a new generation of therapies based on acceptance and mindfulness,’ they explain. ‘These therapies don’t try to alter your thoughts. Instead, they help you change your relationship to them. You don’t have to believe your negative thoughts, or act on them, or have a lot of bad feelings because the thoughts crossed your mind.’ Focus on mind-body exercises such as mindfulness meditation and long-distance running to aid thought awareness and present orientation.
The benefits of exercise have truly never been so affirmed. ‘People who exercise live longer and have a lowered risk of high blood pressure, stroke, cardiovascular disease, depression, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and metabolic syndrome,’ explain Dr Blackburn and Dr Epel. Indeed several studies – including one conducted in 2008 on 1,200 twin pairs – have found that sedentary people have shorter telomeres than people who are even a little more active. ‘Sitting is the new smoking and fundamentally we are all designed to move,’ agrees Dr Aujla. The exercises that telomeres love? Varied aerobic fitness and HIIT – interestingly, over resistance training – is thought to be the most effective. And don’t fear: you needn’t be an Olympian to reap the benefits; anything other than lingering in a sedentary state – like walking – will suffice.
Being overweight doesn’t affect telomere length as much as you may think. How much you weigh on the scales is, actually, near-on irrelevant in telomere terms; it’s your metabolic health (how much muscle versus body fat we have) and where fat is stored that matters the most, according to Dr Blackburn and Dr Epel. ‘Telomeres tell us not to focus on weight,’ the pair reveal. ‘Instead, use your level of belly protrusion and insulin sensitivity as an index of health.’ What’s more, obsessing over calories and diets can actually have an adverse affect on ageing; restricting is stressful, which we know to have a much greater effect on our telomeres.
‘To say diet is merely a source of energy and not intricately related to health (or ageing in this example) is frankly unscientific,’ states Dr Aujla. But considering the level of conflicting food advice that surrounds us, it’s easy to feel confused. ‘We trust telomere evidence because it looks at how the body responds to foods at microlevel,’ Dr Blackburn and Dr Epel explain. ‘These findings tell us that diets don’t work, and that the most empowering choice we can make is to eat fresh, whole foods instead of processed ones. As it turns out, eating for healthy telomeres is very pleasant, satisfying and non-restrictive.’ No need to cut out gluten, or dairy, or carbs, then. Getting a varied diet of fresh fruit and veg, wholegrains, beans, nuts and seeds, legumes, omega-3 fatty acids and low-fat, high-quality sources of protein – coined a “prudent” pattern of eating or the Mediterranean diet – will do just the trick.
‘Researchers have looked at how sleep length affects telomeres in different populations, and the same answer keeps coming up: Long sleep means long telomeres,’ say Dr Blackburn and Dr Epel. The ideal length? Seven hours, although it’s important to focus on sleep rhythm (going to bed and waking up at regular times) and sleep quality, too (it’s the deep, REM sleep that reaps the most rewards). Strategies as simple as removing electronic screens from our bedrooms can boost sleep quality.
A happier li�e
Eating well, moving more, sleeping enough... Indeed in many ways it’s what we knew before. But rather than just helping us livelonger, such science has proven that in caring for our bodies appropriately, we can also livebetterwell into later life. ‘You may be stuck with the genes you inherited but not with the way they talk to the rest of your body,’ says Dr Gottfried. ‘Through epigenetics, you can upgrade the way your genes talk with targeted and wise lifestyle choices.’ Dr Aujla also believes the change lies in our hands, but is quick to maintain we shouldn’t expect immediate results. ‘Our bodies and minds are not designed to function in an x+y=z basis, which is why to “slow ageing” is a multifaceted process,’ he concludes. ‘Focus on achieving quality sleep, including quality ingredients into your diet, practising mindfulness and exercising. These are the only evidence-based interventions for a real anti-ageing effect and they are very powerful.’
New research suggests that around 90 per cent of the signs of ageing and disease are caused by lifestyle and environment, not genes
Obsessing over calories and diets can actually have an adverse affect on ageing