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Flipping through the paper the other day, an unusual article caught my eye. Written by a local doctor, it began by comparing aglets, the tips that keep shoelaces from unraveling, to telomeres, stretches of repeated DNA sequences that protect our chromosomes’ ends (much like aglets do), help cells divide and eventually, shorten and die. (For anyone out there reading who is more familiar with genetics than I, I sincerely apologize for that incredibly truncated, layman’s explanation!)
Telomeres dying, or becoming inactive, has been linked with aging, disease and death, and current research shows that telomeres become shorter due to unhealthy lifestyle habits, including stress and traumatic events. The good news is that changing unhealthy habits can halt, and in some cases actually lengthen,our telomeres.
It’s not news that stress takes a toll on our mental, physical and emotional wellbeing. Stress is linked to a whole slew of problems, including depression, high blood pressure, heart disease and lowered immunity. What was new to me, however, was that stress affects us down to our very core. Our literal DNA, that impossibly tiny, incredibly important, laddered twist of self that sets the stage for our identities – affected by bad traffic? By arguments? Pent-up anger? Apparently, yes.
There is still some speculation about telomeres as indicators vs. catalysts, but more and more information points to stress reduction and social support (as well as diet and exercise) as having a significant effect on our telomeres’ lengths, preventing them from shortening too quickly, and preventing the results of that shortening as well.
Stress management techniques, like yoga, meditation, healthy exercise and positive visualization help to lengthen telomeres. So does spending quality time with loved ones. The article I discovered also discussed the effects of stress and trauma on the telomeres of children.
So we now know that stress can harm us, all of us, down to our very DNA, kids included. That’s a pretty compelling reason not only to work at reducing our own stress, but to work towards reducing the stress of others as well. Being a positive person with the people we interact with, be it family members, co-workers or strangers on the street, works towards creating a healthier whole.
Reading more, I was surprised to discover that telomere length, and other changes in parental genes, may have an effect on offspring. Instead of being stuck with the genes we were born with, lifestyle habits can alter what we thought previously unalterable, and may even affect future generations. Our DNA may set the stage, but we choose the plays, costumes and scenery.
I like this idea, of having responsibility and involvement in something I thought was out of my hands. I find it encouraging that my choices, specifically the positive ones, do more than just lift my spirits – they literally change me, in wonderful ways. And just think, my great-great-grandchildren may be healthier because I meditated, worked out or formed positive relationships in my life. That is really passing on the gift of optimism!