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“We can live better and more fully now and in our later years.” THE TELOMERE EFFECT: Living Younger, Healthier, Longer (Grand Central Publishing, 2017)

The Challenge Mentality

Response to Stress Affects Body and Mind

The Telomere Effect explains how an energetic and healthy lifestyle keeps us younger—on a cellular level.

The co-authors, one instrumental in the discovery of telomeres’ role in the aging process and the other a leading health psychologist, begin with the story of Jeanne Calment, a woman who took up the sport of fencing at 85, and was still riding a bike and greeting friends on the streets of Arles, France into her triple digits. “Calment’s relish for life captures what we all want: a life that is healthy right up to the very end,” Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, and Elissa Epel, PhD, write. “Aging and death are immutable facts of life, but how we live until our last days is not. This is up to us. We can live better and more full now and in our later years.”

Telomere research has reached a stage where the relevance to the public is coming into focus. “We’ve written this book to put this important information into your hands.”

The Telomere Effect is a new way to gage—and slow—human aging. Current thinking is that DNA in our cells becomes progressively damaged, causing cells to become old and worn out. The question is how the damage occurs. “The full answers aren’t known yet, but the clues are now pointing strongly toward telomeres as a major culprit.”

Telomeres are “small but vitally important…end regions” that protect our DNA. They wear down throughout the body as we age, and this “underlying mechanism” contributes to most diseases of aging. “Telomeres explain how we run out of the ability to replenish tissue.” There are other factors, but telomere attrition is a clear and early contributor to the aging process. This book explains how “it is possible to slow or even reverse [telomere] attrition.”

Many lifestyle factors impact telomere thickness and vitality, but the one I find most fascinating is how we think. (That hits home; see below.)

Make Stress Work for You

Stress is as old as time—and it can be protective or toxic, good or bad. Even if we can’t control the stressful events in our life, we can orchestrate our response.

“Incredible as it sounds,” Blackburn and Epel say, “you can learn to use stress as a source of fuel—and as a shield that can help protect your telomeres.”

Some of us feel stress more than others. We’re wired one way or the other—and it’s a good thing. “It has been critical to human survival for some of us to respond in a robust way to changes in our environment, and for others to be more sensitive,” the authors observe. “After all, someone’s got to alert the tribe to dangers and warn the gung-ho members against taking foolhardy risks.”

A balance of the two extremes is probably best. Sensitive enough to recognize danger, and bold enough to do something about it.

Turn Threat into Challenge

“Knowing how emotions are created is powerful,” Blackburn and Epel emphasize. It’s the key to making emotion work for us. Turning stress into energy.

How we respond to stress is not a linear process. “The brain is wired to predict things ahead of time,” the authors explain, “not just react after things have happened.”

Past experience combines with incoming experience to predict the future. It’s a continually evolving process. Our brain comes up with emotions to match the expectation. We patch all the information together and respond with the appropriate emotions. It happens in seconds. The emotions are uniquely ours. “Our emotions are not pure reactions to the world, they are our own fabricated construction of the world.”

Understanding that can put you in the driver’s seat. You can make emotions work for rather than against you. “Instead of feeling your body’s stress response and viewing them as harmful…you can think about your body’s arousal as a source of fuel that will help your brain work quickly and efficiently.”

The authors relate the experience of a sprinter who believed that stress was preventing her from performing up to her potential. “You’ve got to help me stop my heart from jumping out of my chest before every race,” she begged a sports psychologist.

He laughed and asked if she really wanted to slow her heart down. “You need to think of stress as helping you get ready to perform,” he advised her. “You need to say, Yes! I need this!”

She needed to make stress work for her.

It worked. She took his advice and set a personal record.

Sounds too simple. But Blackburn and Epel assure readers that research backs up this method of converting threat to challenge.

“A challenge response doesn’t make you less stressed,” they explain. “Your sympathetic nervous system is still highly aroused, but it is a positive arousal, putting you in a more powerful, more focused state.”

In more dire situations, the authors suggest a gentler way of talking to yourself. You could say: My body’s responses are trying to help me. They’re designed to help me focus on the tasks at hand.

Simply reminding yourself that stress can be harnessed to your benefit can set off positive emotions. Turning threats into powerful challenges that bring out your best efforts.

The take home message to you—and your telomeres: We cannot rid ourselves of stress, but approaching stressful events with a challenge mentality can help promote protective stress resilience in body and mind.

The Telomere Effect, of course, contains many more details on how to live long and well. I’ve barely scratched the surface on one aspect of telomere health.

*  *  *

I want to tell you about an amazing women who challenged life to the end of her 102 years.

A life to Remember

I had only met Carol’s aunt (she was married to her mother’s brother until he was killed in a hunting accident in 1941) one time when we joined a large group of friends and relatives to celebrate her 100th birthday. Mary Dahl was holding court at the front of the hotel ballroom as we paraded up one by one to pay our respects. Not expecting a centenarian to remember me, I introduced myself as Carol’s husband. Smiling broadly, she said “I know who you are!”

Remembering how aware and responsive she was still brings tears to my eyes. It was emblematic of her exuberant approach to life.

Growing up at a simpler time, Mary’s life was rich despite meager beginning. She could tell you about riding a horse and crossing a creek to get to school. She lived through the Great Depression and World War II. She also shared her feelings about manned space flight to the moon—and the shock of President Kennedy’s assassination.

Married to her second husband Ed for 64 years, she was a homemaker and a seamstress. She taught her children how to live a full and happy life without a lot of money. Her grandchildren enjoyed spending time with her in the summer. Among other bounties, she fed them homemade treats and taught them how to can and freeze the produce of her garden and fruit trees.

Perhaps most telling of all are the newsletters she shared with family and friends in the last years of her life. Like Jeanne Calment, she never stopped finding promise in the future. The most stressful events in life became her challenges. Excerpts from her missives follow:    

2010, age 96, her husband dies and she goes into the Bee Hive assisted living facility: It is a year of change for me. And I find that with each year that I live, I experience new things and continue to learn and adjust. Looking forward to the New Year and the interesting things that are to come.

2011, age 97, dispensing the wisdom of her years to the staff at the Bee Hive: I am trying to teach the cooks how to cook properly—they still have a ways to go—but they are learning. I am a resource they come to for advice.

2013, age 99: I try to be as independent as I can—I write my own letters, make telephone calls and enjoy reading the letters that family and friends send. It is so hard to imagine that I have lived 99 years—from horse and buggy to electric cars. I am continually amazed at all of the wonderful changes I have lived through in my lifetime. But the values I grew up with are still constant in this ever-changing world. I hope you are looking forward to the New Year with anticipation and joy. I know I am.

2014, age 100: I have seen many changes in my life and am sure that there are a few more surprises in the coming year.

December, 2015: I hope that this letter finds you all in good spirits and looking forward to another year. I know that I am looking forward to year 102 in my life.

*  *  *

Mary Dahl's telomeres must be smiling down on us.  What a wonderful example she is of living life to the fullest!

April 1,2017

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