05 February 2018
Senior Lecturer in Medical Genetics, Kingston University London and Trustee, Progress Educational TrustAppeared in BioNews 936
The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer
Published by Orion Spring
ISBN-10: 1780229038, ISBN-13: 978-1780229034
Buy this book from Amazon UK
We are already into the second month of 2018, so if you made New Year's resolutions then the chances are that, like me, you've long ditched them – especially any regarding your health. It seems that changing old habits is hard, even those that we know will increase our risk of succumbing to disease and disability. And what exactly constitutes a 'healthy' lifestyle anyway?
'The Telomere Effect', published last year, views this subject through the lens of the latest research into the biology of ageing. The eponymous telomere is the protective structure found at the ends of our chromosomes, the bundles of genetic material found in almost all of our body cells. Telomeres get shorter as we age, but the rate at which this happens is influenced by a host of genetic and lifestyle factors (see BioNews 885). Or, as the publicity blurb for the book put it: 'Have you ever wondered why some 60-year olds look and feel like 40-year olds and why some 40-year olds appear more like 60-year olds?'
To answer this question, Nobel-prize-winning telomere researcher Professor Elizabeth Blackburn and health psychologist Professor Elissa Epel, both at the University of California, San Francisco, have trawled the scientific literature and summarised an impressive number of recent research studies – the findings of which, in most cases, would otherwise be inaccessible behind the journals' paywalls. Perhaps unsurprisingly, regular exercise, a 'Mediterranean-style' diet, good sleep habits and taking measures to reduce the impact of psychological stress are all associated with a slower rate of cellular ageing. But the authors also point to growing evidence that our early life experiences and social connections in adulthood are also equally important for successful ageing.
The book is written in a jargon-free, engaging style, and starts with a broad overview of telomere science and the latest findings of research into the ageing process. It then asks the reader to assess their own 'telomere trajectory', by answering questions on a range of behaviours that impact on mental and physical health. It follows this up with practical recommendations for lifestyle changes associated with a slower rate of telomere shortening, in the form of 'renewal labs' at the end of each chapter.
Professors Blackburn and Epel also take time to warn readers away from untested anti-ageing products that claim to work by lengthening telomeres. These, they say, are likely to be at best ineffective, and at worst may increase the risk of cancer. This is because once a cell's telomeres reach a critically short length, it will usually stop dividing and making new cells, and will eventually die. In this way, short telomeres act as 'the canary in the coal mine', making sure that old cells with damaged DNA are taken out of service, rather than continuing to grow in an uncontrolled, potentially cancerous way.
This book will appeal to those who prefer their health information to be both evidence-based and achievable – for example, in the chapter on physical activity the authors state that people who exercise have longer telomeres and better metabolic health. But they also point out that the telomeres of endurance athletes are not much longer than those of people who engage in moderate exercise, so 'we don't need to aspire to extremes'.
Moving on from cells and individuals, the final section of the book asks what studies of telomere maintenance can tell us about the social factors that affect human health and happiness. It contains some fascinating accounts of studies of telomere length and its association with a person's neighbourhood, income, social connections, prenatal environment and childhood experiences. As with the earlier sections on the associations between telomeres and lifestyle factors, there is less information on the biological mechanisms that may underlie these intriguing observations. However this is a limitation of the field itself, rather than any omission on the authors' part – as is often the case, more research is needed. And their conclusion that these findings should act as a rallying call to address social inequalities can hardly be argued with.
Overall, this book is a well-written, scientifically rigorous and user-friendly guide to making simple and enduring lifestyle changes that may counteract genetic predisposition to age-related disease. Or, as the authors put it in their concluding chapter: 'Our genes are like computer hardware; we cannot change them. Our epigenome, of which telomeres are a part, is like software, which requires programming. We are the programmers of the epigenome.'
Buy The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer from Amazon UK.