This week I learned some science! Elizabeth Blackburn, the Nobel laureate was my teacher and she taught me all about the part of our chromosomes named telomeres.
Now, I must put a little disclaimer in here – unfortunately, my science lesson was not in person, and was actually learned through Elizabeth’s TED talk named ‘The Science of Cells that Never get Old’ (which can be found here). Nonetheless her talk was really very enlightening and definitely worth a watch.
She explained how every single cell of our body contains DNA chromosomes and part of these chromosomes are called telomeres; these are caps protecting the chromosome. However, telomeres shorten as we age until they eventually disappear all together and cell division ceases. It is the shortening of telomeres that ages us and contributes to risks of Alzheimer’s, some cancers, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
So what has all this got to do with happiness? Well this is the very question I asked myself nine minutes into Elizabeth’s TED talk.
But it turns out that the maintenance of our telomeres is actually connected to how we respond to life events…it is not just about age.
A study was conducted on a group of mothers with very sick children. These women were under enormous and prolonged stress and this was reflected in their telomeres: the general pattern was that the more years they spent caregiving, the shorter their telomeres. However, some mothers were able to maintain their telomeres; these were the mothers that were more resilient to stress and experienced their unfortunate circumstances as a challenge, rather than a threat.
So what does this mean? Well, it means that attitude really matters. Negative thinking increases stress levels and this affects telomere length. We’ve all heard about those living stressful lives aging more quickly, but what is being suggested, is that a change of how you see these ‘stressful’ circumstances can delay physical deterioration.
Just change our whole mind-set…see life’s hardships as merely challenges…I don’t know about you, but for me, that seems far easier said than done. However, Elizabeth explained even simple changes can have an impact.
One study she mentioned showed that 12 minutes of meditation per day for just 2 months actually improved caregivers’ capacity to maintain their telomeres. So if you are already doing daily meditations keep at it! Otherwise, think about trying it out.
Also think back to Day 3 of the 21 Day Toolkit – positive focus. Go on a positivity walk, drawing your attention away from anything negative and towards anything positive. This will help you make those steps towards maintaining a positive attitude in times of stress.
Science is suggesting that the health of our mind and attitude is directly relevant to our long-term physical health and that we have the power to use our mind-set to influence it…yet another aspect of why it is so important for us to work on keeping our minds as happy and healthy as possible. So, whatever you’re up to this weekend, think of those telomeres, take a few deep breaths, and stay positive!
By Ilana Mann