Living on autopilot is common with research showing that nearly half the time our minds are not focused on what we are doing (Killingsworth & Gilbert, 2010). While it is sad to think that we may be missing a large proportion of our lives it is perhaps more shocking to learn that this may be contributing to poor health and premature ageing.
How can this be? Dr Elisa Epel and colleagues have shown that mind wandering leads to accelerated telomere shortening, which is a biological marker of ageing (Epel et al. 2004; Epel et al. 2013).
Telomeres (repetitive non-coding sequences of DNA) are the protective caps at the end of our chromosomes and are necessary to prevent the loss of vital coding DNA when our cells divide.
How our body ages is related to how our cells, the building blocks of the body, age. In essence, biological ageing is a function of cell health and central to this is the cells’ ability to divide allowing tissue growth, renewal and repair. The majority of cells in our body have a finite number of times that they can divide before they enter old age (senescence) or die (apoptosis – cell death). This cellular ageing parallels our body ageing and susceptibility to diseases of old age.
Perhaps not surprisingly chronological age and biological age doesn’t always match. Many of us can think of people who look older than their age and research has now shown that they often have shortened telomeres – so their cells are prematurely aged.
What is the relationship between cellular ageing and telomere length? We mentioned that healthy cells have a finite number of times they are able to divide and what determines this is telomere length.
When telomere length becomes too short it can no longer protect against the loss of coding DNA during cell division. Consequently, when telomeres reach this critical length they signal the cell to stop dividing. In effect, this is a mechanism that ensures we maintain the integrity of our DNA, but is also how tissues and the body age. An analogy often used is that telomeres are like the aglets on shoelaces which stop our laces from fraying.
Scarily, it seems that our telomeres are listening to what goes on in our heads. When we suffer chronic stress, sleep poorly and our mind is constantly all over the place, this accelerates telomere shortening and our cells prematurely age (Epel. 2009; Puterman and Epel 2012). Given how endemic stress is in modern living if we are to stay healthier and younger for longer it is important that we look after our telomeres.
The good news is that practising mindfulness helps (Epel et al. 2009; Epel et al. 2013). It reduces stress and builds resilience as well as improving sleep. It allows us to step out of automatic doing mode, getting caught up in detrimental patterns of thinking and behaviour. It works by enabling us to pause and reappraise, so we see things clearly for what they are and not what we think they are. This means that even for those of us who are natural worriers we can learn to control our stress response and reframe what we perceive as a threat as more of a challenge.
Why not try looking after your telomeres by practising mindfulness.
Here is a tip to look after them. When you feel you are in a stressful situation try taking a mindful pause.
Epel E.S. (2009). Psychological and Metabolic Stress: A Recipe for Accelerated Cellular Aging? Hormones (Athens) 8 (1), 7—22
Epel et al. (2004) Accelerated telomere shortening in response to life stress PNAS 49(10): 17312 -17315 DOI 10.1073 pnas.0407162101
Epel E., Daubenmier J., Moskowitz J.T., Folkman S., and Blackburn E. (2009). Can Meditation Slow Rate of Cellular Aging? Cognitive Stress, Mindfulness, And Telomeres. Ann N Y Acad Sci. August; 1172: 34–53. DOI:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04414.x.
Killingsworth M.A. and Gilbert D.T. (2010). A Wandering Mind is an Unhappy Mind Science Vol. 330 no. 6006 p. 932 DOI: 10.1126/science.1192439 BREVIA
Epel et al. (2013) Minds and Aging Cells. Clinical Psychological Science 1(1): 75–83 DOI: 10.1177/2167702612460234
Puterman and Epel (2012) An intricate dance: Life experience, multisystem resiliency, and rate of telomere decline throughout the lifespan. Soc Personal Psychol Compass. 6(11): 807–825. DOI:10.1111/j. 1751-9004.2012.00465.x.