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Living Longer and Living Well

In this article Philip Carrier, our Pastoral Care Manager, shares an incredible recent discovery in biology and its consequent connection to our lifestyle. 

Telomeres and telomerase

In 2009, Australian Elizabeth Blackburn won the Nobel Prize for her discovery of telomeres, the protective caps on chromosomes. Every time a cell divides, these protective caps wear down, so over time the telomeres shorten. When telomeres shorten, cells will start to malfunction and lose their ability to divide.  Scientist today use Professor Blackburn’s research and the measure of telomere length as a measure for ageing and disease risk.  

Professor Blackburn also discovered an enzyme called “telomerase”, which protects the chromosomal caps from the wear and tear of cellular division, or ageing. Therefore, the more telomerase you have, the longer your telomeres will be; the less telomerase you have the shorter your telomeres will be and the more prone you are to degeneration and illness.

A Very Radical Idea

Until her research, genes and their genetic expression were thought to be the only factors responsible for telomere length. Elizabeth Blackburn set out to find which factors, besides ageing, caused telomeres to shorten.  

In 2000 she had a visit that changed the course of her research. The visitor was Elissa Epel from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. Epel was interested in the damage done to the body by chronic stress and had a long standing interest in how the mind and body relate. She was influenced by the pioneering biologist Hans Selye who said that “Every stress leaves an indelible scar and the organism pays for its survival after a stressful situation by becoming a little older”. Epel wanted to find that scar. She was interested in the idea that if we look deep within cells we might be able to measure the wear and tear of stress and daily life. After reading about Blackburn’s work on ageing, she wondered if telomeres were the answer.

Stress                                                                                                                                                         In a landmark study with women, Blackburn and Epel investigated the theory that the more stressed an individual, the lower the telomerase activity. What they found was quite astonishing! Women with the highest levels of perceived stress, psychological stress and chronic stress had telomeres shorter on average by the equivalent of at least one decade of additional ageing compared to low stress women.

After many studies the question eventually arose:  Are shorter telomeres a measure for an increased risk of health problems?  The answer appears overwhelmingly to be yes.

Professor Blackburn says she is increasingly convinced that the effects of stress do matter and several studies have shown that our telomeres predict future health.