These days, it’s difficult to have a conversation about health and longevity without mentioning telomeres. Telomeres are the “caps” on the end of DNA strands that help cells do their job and protect them from degradation. “How much length you have on the end of your telomere is kind of a biological clock,” Marya explains. (Longer telomeres, the theory states, longer lifespan.)
“What we know now is that telomeres can be shortened through stress, through trauma, and through environmental damage and exposure,” she adds. Get ready for some science speak: “When telomeres are shortened in that way, those cells enter senescence [a fancy word for when cells stop dividing], and they are more likely to develop a pro-inflammatory phenotype called the senescence associated secretory phenotype (SASP)…This SASP is an inflammation factory, a generator of pro-inflammatory molecules in the body.”
But back to the trauma point: Apparently, even traumatic events during childhood can shorten telomeres (and, thus, jumpstart the development of SASPs): According to one study analyzing DNA samples from 4,598 people aged 50 and older, those who experienced stressful events during childhood had an increased risk of shorter telomeres; in fact, each significant stressful event in a person’s childhood appeared to increase those odds by 11%.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though: “The thing about telomeres, is not only can they be shortened by stress, but they can be elongated by things that are regenerative and nourishing,” says Marya. Things like meditation and the right nutrients have both been associated with longer telomeres.