Everyone ages, but we have more control over the ageing process than you might think. The key is in protecting our telomeres – a key component in our chromosome cell structure – using self-repair methods like meditation and a fresh diet.
While you’d have to be living in dreamland to think you could outrun the ageing process, a growing amount of scientific evidence says we have more power over how we age than many of us realise. So how much of it is determined by our genes, and to what extent does our lifestyle have an impact?
When it comes to ageing, it all starts with what’s happening deep inside our cells. Within the cellular structure are chromosomes, which carry our genetic makeup, and on the ends of these chromosomes are protective caps made of protein – these are the telomeres. When we are born, their length is equal to 10,000 base pairs. By the time we’re 35, the length has reduced to only 7500 base pairs. When telomeres become shortened, our cells cannot replenish as effectively, and this is what impacts how we biologically age.
[pullquote]When telomeres become shortened, our cells cannot replenish as effectively, and this is what impacts how we biologically age.[/pullquote]
Two leading researchers on ageing, Nobel Laureate molecular biologist Professor Elizabeth Blackburn and Professor Elissa Epel, have dedicated the past 20 years to the study of cell changes. They say as the years tick by, we can think of our body like a barrel full of apples.
“A healthy human cell is like one of these fresh, shiny apples. But what happens if there’s a rotten apple in the barrel? It will make the other apples around it rotten too. This rotten apple is like an aged cell.”
Their research has found that “many old cells are like zombies, no longer able to fulfil their functions. They are unable to react normally to stresses any more, regardless of whether they are physical or mental.” And this shows as grey hair, wrinkles or pigmented moles. Our appearance is virtually a 1:1 reflection of our ‘cellular age’.
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But what makes us look old?
“The current scientific theory of ageing states that the DNA in our cells gets increasingly damaged over time, resulting in cells irreversibly ageing and no longer being able to properly fulfil their function,” Blackburn and Epel explain.
Their search for answers kept leading researchers to the same point right at the genetic heart of our cells – the so-called telomeres. Experts say we can imagine them as being similar to the plastic protective caps on the ends of shoelaces, and they have been found to play a key role in determining how quickly our cells age, when they die, and when we increasingly lose the ability to heal illnesses and stay healthy.
When it comes to how ‘set in stone’ ageing is, American obesity researcher George Bray puts it like this: “Genes load the gun, and the environment pulls the trigger”.
[pullquote]Genes load the gun; the environment pulls the trigger.[/pullquote]
How well we age largely depends on the health of our cells, and more and more research indicates that everything we do determines how long we stay biologically young – and look it too. When healthy cells regenerate, their telomeres remain functional. Every time they split, the protective caps ensure the sensitive genetic makeup is copied in full, true to original, without any damage. But this protection wears away a little more each time – until it is eventually so short that the cell is ‘switched off’.
That’s not the only thing that happens: If the cell is no longer able to split, it becomes “disoriented and exhausted,” say Blackburn and Epel. “It no longer properly understands the signals it receives, and they in turn no longer send the right messages. Old cells also trigger false alarms by releasing inflammatory substances in the body.”
These and other processes not only make us look older, they also increase the risk of weakened immunity, diabetes or cardiovascular complaints. Worse still, these senior cells are no longer able to properly dispose of their waste products, and research says the hazardous deposits can contribute to neurological diseases.
Can we really delay cell ageing?
The solution: We need to keep the protection of our sensitive DNA stable for as long as possible. Having healthy telomeres is a key factor, as is having good amounts of the enzyme telomerase, which is able to repair and restore our chromosome protectors.
This is where lifestyle factors like minimising stress, getting enough sleep and exercising regularly come in, as experts say these can truly benefit our health at a cellular level. Research has found telomeres don’t simply execute commands issued by our genetic code.
“They listen to us,” say Blackburn and Epel. “They accept the instructions we give them. Our lifestyle can order them to speed up the cell-ageing process. But it can also do the opposite.”
Want to slow the clock? Try these six scientifically-proven steps to promote cell health and prevent premature ageing: