Many of us know that long-term stress can affect our health, but did you know that it can also impact aging and longevity?

Welcome to the world of telomeres.

According to an article by The American Institute of Stress, “Telomeres are little caps at the end of chromosomes that prevent loss or injury to genetic information during cell division. Each time a cell divides, part of the telomere is lost and it becomes shorter. When a telomere eventually disappears because of repeated cell divisions, chromosomal damage prevents the cell from accurately reproducing itself. This shortening and eventual erosion of telomeres are prevented or reduced by telomerase, an enzyme in cells that preserves their length. Many believe that telomere destruction and reconstruction is related to the balance between aging and cancer and explains why cancer is more common in the elderly.”

In addition to cancer, shorter telomeres have also recently been associated with a whole host of other diseases, including cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and diabetes.

I first learned about telomeres in 2016, when I worked for a human potential physician that specialized in optimizing health through lifestyle changes. He was one of the first physicians in the country that built his practice around the awareness that lifestyle and behaviors impact one’s genetics.

My former boss told me that his high stress levels during his medical training had severely shortened his telomeres and that he was working hard to reverse that by optimizing his own health as well as that of his patients. Not only was I excited to learn about this, but it was also inspiring to learn that there were ways to undo previous damage.

The foundation of his approach was based on measuring stress levels and then teaching people through biofeedback to regulate breathing and heart rate. He then added personalized recommendations based on individual genetics for additional stress-reducing and health-enhancing lifestyle changes, including diet, exercise, meditation, sound therapy, acupuncture, etc.

My former boss was in good company. A number of researchers and physicians were studying how lifestyle changes could reverse telomere shortening. One of the first studies was published in 2013 by Dean Ornish, a physician, best-selling author and head of the Preventative Medicine Research Institute at the University of California in San Francisco.

There is now a lot more information available versus 2013. A best-selling book, “The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer,” was published in 2017 and was co-authored by Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, who originally discovered the role of telomeres on aging, and psychologist Dr. Elissa Epel. Here’s a wonderful passage from the book:

“To an extent that has surprised us and the rest of the scientific community, telomeres do not simply carry out the commands issued by your genetic code. Your telomeres, it turns out, are listening to you. They absorb the instructions you give them. The way you live can, in effect, tell your telomeres to speed up the process of cellular aging. But it can also do the opposite.”

The book is full of helpful information. For optimal health, the authors recommend a plant-based diet of nutrient-rich foods that are high in antioxidants. In addition, they also recommend focus, mindfulness and meditation as stated here:

“One study has found that people who tend to focus their minds more on what they are currently doing have longer telomeres than people whose minds tend to wander more. Other studies find that taking a class that offers training in mindfulness or meditation is linked to improved telomere maintenance.”

The benefits of making healthy lifestyle choices are well-known. However, knowing that you can greatly increase your chances of living longer and becoming healthier in the process because you’re changing your genetic expression is pretty amazing.

Since we’re almost at the end of 2019 and about to begin a new year, this might be a perfect time to implement some new lifestyle choices, especially now that you know that your telomeres are listening.