Aging, Telemeres, Meditation, and Pond Scum TED TALK 2017
Nobel Prize-winning biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, was researching caps at the ends of chromosomes, known as telomeres, and found that pond scum provided an ample supply for her research. She wanted to figure out one of humanity’s biggest, and oldest, questions — why and how we age.
Blackburn wrote that “Telomeres are special sections of noncoding DNA at the end of chromosomes that protect our coding DNA during cell division. Each time a cell divides, all of its genetic information has to be copied, but due to a glitch in how DNA is copied, telomeres get worn down and shortened. Telomeres help protect our coding DNA from being worn down during cell division by sacrificing themselves. Eventually, worn-down telomeres send a signal to cells that the coding DNA is at risk and it’s time for the cell to die.” Based on this research, Blackburn concluded that telomere shortening was simply a fact of aging, but it turned out to be far from the full story.
With colleague Carol Greider, she noticed something strange. Pond scum cells never got old and died. “Their telomeres weren’t shortening as time marched on. Sometimes they even got longer,” she says. “Something else was at work.”
THey discovered of a previously undreamed-of enzyme, telomerase, which helps replenish telomeres. “When we removed telomerase in pond scum, their cells wore down and they died,” she says. In other words, telomerase can slow, prevent or even reverse telomere shortening caused by cell division and, as we’ll see, exacerbated by the stresses of life. ( also found…..too much telomerase increasied your risk of cancer.)
“Our telomeres shorten as we age, and that’s aging us,” says Blackburn. Telomere shortening has been linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s — the diseases that many of us eventually die of.
However, telomere shortening doesn’t happen at the same rate in everyone. For some, it happens slowly, extending the healthy, productive years of life, what Blackburn calls your “healthspan.” For others, it happens faster, and the disease span — the years of feeling old and sick — comes more quickly.
Appel studied the effects of severe chronic psychological stress, focusing on caregivers to children with a chronic disorder, and she wanted to know what happened to telomeres in the chronically stressed.
They found that the more years the mother had been a caregiver, the shorter her telomeres, and the more the mother perceived her situation as stressful, the lower her telomerase and the shorter her telomeres.
However, “hidden in that data was hope,” says Blackburn. A small group of mothers, despite having cared for their children for years, had managed to maintain their telomeres. “They were resilient to stress,” she explains. They discovered the difference in how the mothers responded to the stress. The mothers with resilient telomeres didn’t experience stress as a threat but as a challenge. “People’s life events and the way they respond to those events can influence how they maintain telomeres,” explains Blackburn.
Intrigued by Blackburn and Appel’s research, other scientists began to explore the mysteries of telomeres, too. The results were astonishing. In one study, researchers found that caregivers of relatives with dementia who practiced meditation 12 minutes a day for two months had a 43 percent boost in telomerase. Others found that emotional neglect, exposure to violence, bullying and racism in childhood all have a long-term impact on telomeres. In contrast, tight-knit communities, lifelong friendships and long-term marriage can protect them.
“I have the power to impact my own telomeres, and I also have the power to impact yours,” says Blackburn. “Telomere science has told us just how interconnected we all are.”