Did you know that shoelaces are the key to understanding aging? Well, not the ones in your shoes, of course. Scientists have known about telomeres since the 1970’s, but have only recently begun to understand their importance to public health issues like cancer and aging. Telomeres are small strands of DNA at the ends of chromosomes. They act as a protective agent against wear and keep the ends of chromosomes from becoming stuck together. This is where shoelaces come in. Much like the plastic tips on shoelaces keep their ends from fraying, telomeres are protective strands made of a series of DNA base pairs which help protect genes as cells replicate. However, each time a cell is replicated, telomeres get shorter. An enzyme called telomerase is produced by cells to stave off the decay of telomeres, but over time cells become unable to make enough of the enzyme to stop it altogether.
This is thought to be a key link in the process of human aging. As scientists observe telomere length at various stages of life, they find that telomeres become progressively shorter with age. A newborn might have 8000 base pairs of DNA, a middle-aged adult – 3000, and an elderly individual – only 1500. This means that as people move through life, their genes are decaying over time due to the shortened length of the telomeres on their chromosomes.
Telomeres also play a role in various forms of cancer. Cancers like bone, pancreatic, lung, head, neck, kidney and bladder have short telomeres. Scientists are hopeful that advances with telomeres could help in cancer detection — by measuring telomere length – and in cancer treatment – by controlling telomerase production in cancerous cells, causing them to die.
At this point, you may be asking: Is there anything I can do to encourage telomere health in my body? Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn is doing research indicating that the answer is ‘yes!’ Blackburn and her colleges have done a series of studies that show connections between telomere activity and mindfulness. Meditation has long been a psychological technique used for stress reduction and trauma treatment. Any form of meditation can be used to cultivate mindfulness and it can be practiced in other ways, too. Practicing mindfulness is thought to have a positive effect on telomere length and the longevity of cell life. And there are always the other added benefits of meditation, like an increased sense of purpose and control and a decrease in negative emotion.
So next time you bend down to tie your shoes, let that remind you of those infinitesimal strands of DNA that keep your chromosomes strong and your cells replicating well. Then, take just a minute for a deep breath and to clear your mind. You just might increase the health of your cells and improve the quality of your life.