From the moment of birth until death, the process of aging marches on at a steady pace. Although genes provide clues to our susceptibility to health problems and approximate mortality, the greatest predictor in whether we succumb to or avoid disease is how we choose to live our lives. The common phrase “aging is fact of life” should not be misinterpreted to mean “don’t bother fighting it because we’re all going to die someday.” Although true, what’s paramount is the inherent quality of our daily lives. Are we consciously engaging in behaviors that augment well-being or conversely, are the days spent suffering from aches and pains, immobility, depression and malaise? Positive health behaviors can have an overarching protective effect on our capacity for resilience to the normal stressors of life and buffer against environmental influences of disease. In the absence of vigilance, we can easily fall victim to their enormous powers.
The Issues Are in Our Tissues
Researchers Blackburn and Epel’s work on telomeres, the tips on the end of our chromosomes made of protein, reveal important information about how lifestyle behaviors combat the aging process. Telomere length is indicative of a cell’s functional ability to do its job, which in specific tissues like the heart, gut, lungs, etc., is to replicate and divide. Each time a telomere replicates, it gets shorter, thus providing insight to the age of the cell relative to the age of the person. In short, tangible cellular evidence exists to demonstrate how lifestyle choices can influence our genetic predisposition.
Specifically, when analyzing the chromosomes of people who exercise, telomeres tend to be longer as compared to those who are sedentary. The difference between these groups could amount to up to nine extra years of life in someone who exercises! It should also be noted that aerobic exercise made more of an impact than resistance training and that a dose-related response was observed – the highest correlation to telomere length was observed in moderate to high levels of physical activity over the lifespan.
Alternatively, a plant-based diet that is inherently anti-inflammatory and high in omegas has been linked to preservation of telomere length, even in the absence of weight loss or physical activity. By reducing oxidative stress resulting from excessive intake of animal proteins in favor of vegetables and whole grains rich in vitamins and fiber, we build up an important barrier of resistance against the onslaught of cellular aging.
Finally, social connectedness and mindfulness practice have all been studied relative to telomere effect. Negative thought patterns such as ruminating, thinking worrisome thoughts over and over, erode telomere function over time, whereas regular meditation and focused breathing techniques preserve it.
Despite telomere length, we’re still not guaranteed to live until 100, but there is a strong likelihood that eating well, exercising and building stress resilience will enhance the quality of daily life in more ways than one. For those who believe they don’t need to engage in these behaviors because they maintain a normal weight may want to consider the positive effect our behavior has on resilience, and use this as motivation instead. The power is truly within us to enjoy a robust quality of life, especially if we focus on the benefits happening at the cellular level, rather than at the external, superficial one.