On Christmas day in 1984, Carol Grieder, Ph.D., then a graduate student at the University of California, Berkley lab of Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph.D., stopped by the lab, curious to see the results of an experiment that had taken place several days earlier. Eight months of research and variations of experiments had led her to this point. There, in an image on X-ray film, was evidence that an enzyme existed that helped protect people from premature cellular aging. Ecstatic, Greider went home and danced around her living room. Fifteen years later, Blackburn, Grieder, and another scientist, Jack Szostak, Ph.D. were awarded a Nobel Prize for discovering the enzyme they named “telomerase.”
Now, Blackburn and another collaborator, Elissa Epel, Ph.D., have co-authored a new book titled The Telomerase Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer. It describes a unifying framework to help us understand cellular aging and how it is connected to our behaviors and the physical and social environments we live in.
In a nutshell, healthy behaviors and environments produce the telomerase enzyme that lengthens telomeres. Telomeres are the hard end tips of our chromosomes (think of the hard part at the end of a shoestring and you get the idea). Short telomeres are one of the primary causes of cellular aging. They make our bodies vulnerable to early disease. Chronic ongoing stress shortens telomeres.
Given the findings on telomerase, our aim should be to engage in activities and live in physical and social environments that produce this enzyme that lengthens our telomeres so that we are protected from premature cellular aging.
Eating healthy, getting at least seven hours of sleep a night, mindfulness activities such as prayer and/or meditation, and moderate exercise are associated with longer telomeres. Environments with toxic chemicals and toxic relationships (including discrimination) have been found to be associated with shorter telomeres. Chronic job stress has also been found to be associated with shorter telomeres.
Here are three actions you can take in the workplace and outside of it that are likely to produce telomerase, lengthen your telomeres and protect you from premature cellular aging.
Micro-connections are what I call small, quick and easy ways to make connections with others such as making eye contact, smiling and using a person’s first name when you are talking with him or her. Blackburn and Epel recommend being proactive in reaching out to make eye contact and smiling at passersby. Making people feel connected promotes a sense of safety that is associated with healthy cells, whereas ignoring passersby promotes a culture of indifference that makes people feel threatened and has been associated with shorter telomeres. It’s probably not practical to aim to briefly connect with everyone you encounter if you are commuting to work in an urban area and passing by hundreds of people daily but it is a practice you can be intentional about in your workplace and in your local community.
You can make an even deeper connection by learning and using people’s first names and getting to know something about them. The best connectors tend to ask questions and identify something unique about each person they meet which then acts as a bridge to connection and helps them remember that individual. It may be as simple as learning which sports teams the person follows, a hobby he or she enjoys, or a favorite trip taken as a child.
Strengthen Close Relationships
Blackburn and Epel recommend strengthening relationships with your family, friends and colleagues at work by showing gratitude and appreciation, being present in conversations, and using touch that is appropriate for the relationship and the setting (for instance, shaking hands, giving high-fives or fist bumps in the workplace, hugging a family member at home).
I also recommend getting colleagues out for lunch or a coffee break and using that time to connect with them about things other than your jobs. You might start by asking, “What are your interests outside of work?” or “What do you like to do when you’re not working?” These open-ended questions will lead to learning about people’s passions and will increase your connection with them.
Develop Healthy Attitudes
Attitudes are ways of thinking and feeling that affect behavior. Assuming the best in others, being quick to forgive, being optimistic, and not getting overly anxious or worrying obsessively are ways that are likely to protect you from premature cellular aging. When you’re feeling anxious, I recommend opening up to a family member or friend. Talking through your concerns will make you feel better and help you problem-solve because it quiets the part of your brain called the amygdala where emotion is processed and it engages the frontal cortex where conversation and rational thought is processed.
Research studies are in process that will show which attitudes, and uses of language and behaviors affect telomerase levels and telomere length. One positive factor that early research appears to show is that anything that makes people feel connected to others helps protect them from premature cellular aging. This should come as no surprise as other research has shown that connection reduces stress neurotransmitters and hormones such as cortisol.
We will report on new research findings related to connection, telomerase and telomere length in this newsletter as it becomes available. In the meantime, we recommend downloading the free 100 Ways to Connect e-book to identify and implement practices that will help you and your team boost connection in your workplace culture.
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