The Science of Cells That Never Get Old: Elizabeth Blackburn (Transcript)

Now, if my telomeres are connected to how quickly I’m going to feel and get old, if my telomeres can be renewed by my telomerase, then all I have to do to reverse the signs and symptoms of aging is figure out where to buy that Costco-sized bottle of grade. A organic fair trade telomerase, right? Great! Problem solved.

Not so fast, I’m sorry. Alas, that’s not the case. OK. And why? It’s because human genetics has taught us that when it comes to our telomerase, we humans live on a knife edge. OK, simply put, yes, nudging up telomerase does decrease the risks of some diseases, but it also increases the risks of certain and rather nasty cancers.

So even if you could buy that Costco-sized bottle of telomerase, and there are many websites marketing such dubious products, the problem is you could nudge up your risks of cancers. And we don’t want that.

Now, don’t worry, and because, while I think it’s kind of funny that right now, you know, many of us may be thinking, “Well, I’d rather be like pond scum,” there is something for us humans in the story of telomeres and their maintenance.

But I want to get one thing clear. It isn’t about enormously extending human lifespan or immortality. It’s about health span.

Now, health span is the number of years of your life when you’re free of disease, you’re healthy, you’re productive, you’re zestfully enjoying life.

Disease span, the opposite of health span, is the time of your life spent feeling old and sick and dying.

So the real question becomes, OK, if I can’t guzzle telomerase, do I have control over my telomeres’ length and hence my well-being, my health, without those downsides of cancer risks? OK?

So, it’s the year 2000. Now, I’ve been minutely scrutinizing little teeny tiny telomeres very happily for many years, when into my lab walks a psychologist named Elissa Epel.

Now, Elissa’s expertise is in the effects of severe, chronic psychological stress on our mind’s and our body’s health. And there she was standing in my lab, which ironically overlooked the entrance to a mortuary, and — she had a life-and-death question for me.

“What happens to telomeres in people who are chronically stressed?” she asked me. You see, she’d been studying caregivers, and specifically mothers of children with a chronic condition, be it gut disorder, be it autism, you name it — a group obviously under enormous and prolonged psychological stress I have to say, her question changed me profoundly.

See, all this time I had been thinking of telomeres as those miniscule molecular structures that they are, and the genes that control telomeres. And when Elissa asked me about studying caregivers, I suddenly saw telomeres in a whole new light.

I saw beyond the genes and the chromosomes into the lives of the real people we were studying. And I’m a mom myself, and at that moment, I was struck by the image of these women dealing with a child with a condition very difficult to deal with, often without help. And such women, simply, often look worn down.

So was it possible their telomeres were worn down as well?

So our collective curiosity went into overdrive. Elissa selected for our first study a group of such caregiving mothers, and we wanted to ask: What’s the length of their telomeres compared with the number of years that they have been caregiving for their child with a chronic condition?

So four years go by and the day comes when all the results are in, and Elissa looked down at our first scatterplot and literally gasped, because there was a pattern to the data, and it was the exact gradient that we most feared might exist.

It was right there on the page. The longer, the more years that is, the mother had been in this caregiving situation, no matter her age, the shorter were her telomeres. And the more she perceived her situation as being more stressful, the lower was her telomerase and the shorter were her telomeres.

So we had discovered something unheard of: the more chronic stress you are under, the shorter your telomeres, meaning the more likely you were to fall victim to an early disease span and perhaps untimely death.

Our findings meant that people’s life events and the way we respond to these events can change how you maintain your telomeres.

So telomere length wasn’t just a matter of age counted in years. Elissa’s question to me, back when she first came to my lab, indeed had been a life-and-death question.

Now, luckily, hidden in that data there was hope. We noticed that some mothers, despite having been carefully caring for their children for many years, had been able to maintain their telomeres. So studying these women closely revealed that they were resilient to stress.

Somehow they were able to experience their circumstances not as a threat day in and day out but as a challenge. And this has led to a very important insight for all of us: we have control over the way we age all the way down into our cells.

OK, now our initial curiosity became infectious. Thousands of scientists from different fields added their expertise to telomere research, and the findings have poured in. It’s up to over 10,000 scientific papers and counting. So several studies rapidly confirmed our initial finding that yes, chronic stress is bad for telomeres.

And now many are revealing that we have more control over this particular aging process than any of us could ever have imagined.

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