The secret to living to age 100 or older may be mostly in the genes, but there's another secret to longevity, and it has nothing to do with special diets, super surgeries, or where your ancestors are from. It has to do with managing stress-or, more specifically, knowing how to rebound from stressful situations.
There's a direct link between psychological stress and biological aging, says Thea Singer in her new book, "Stress Less: The New Science That Shows Women How to Rejuvenate the Body and the Mind." And that link goes all the way down to our cells.
In a groundbreaking study, 2009 Nobel Prize-winning cell biologist Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Ph.D., and health psychologist Elissa S. Epel, Ph.D., both at the University of California, San Francisco, discovered that that chronic stress "literally gnaws at our DNA-its tips, or telomeres, to be precise-speeding up the rate at which our cells age." In fact, Singer told me in an interview, "Women who perceived themselves as being under the most stress had telomeres that were shorter by equivalent of 10 years."
Telomeres, she explains, protect the ends of our chromosomes "like the plastic tip on the end of a shoelace protects the shoelace from fraying." Babies have longer telomeres than adults, simply because they've been exposed to less stress than adults have. As our cells reproduce, our telomeres become shorter, until they're so short that they can't offer enough protection anymore; that's when we start to see the signs of aging.
But there's good news: It's possible to turn back the clock and actually lengthen our telomeres. There's no magic bullet, but way we react to stress matters-and trying to avoid stress altogether isn't actually healthy. Some stress, in fact, is actually good for us.
"Basically, we've been hearing forever that stress can make us sick," Singer says. "When people hear the word stress, they often think 'bad.' But is we got rid of stress, as Bruce S. McEwen puts it, we'd be dead."
"Acute stress-short term, intermittent stress, or 'challenge' stress-is actually good for us," Singer points out. "Exercise is a form of good stress. And sex has been shown to be a form of good sex in mice!" Where we get into trouble is with chronic or constant stress. "When the stressors don't let up, when it's chronic or consistently repeating, there's no time to come back to baseline." And that's when it starts to really affect our physical health.
Acting, instead of fretting, in the face of stress can give you a feeling of being in control of your circumstances. And, as Singer points out in her book, studies show that people who feel that they are in control actually look different from people who feel that they are not.
"There's no such thing as objective stress," Singer points out. "It's really about the way we look at stress. We can't change circumstances, but we can change the way we look at circumstances."
On NPR's "Morning Edition," 109-year-old Helen Reichert's doctor chalks her long life up to her ability to "bounce back from stress."
"You don't get to be 109 without life hurling a few curve balls at you, and Reichert has had more than her share," he points out. "And after each, she dusts herself off and moves on. A few years back, she had a modest stroke that affected her language abilities. I don't think I've seen a patient of any age tackle rehabilitation and speech therapy the way she did."
So what can you do to change the way you deal with stress-and lengthen your tolemeres in the process?
1. Exercise. It can help stress-proof your brain, so that when you're in a stressful circumstances, your brain will be less reactive. "People who exercise have longer telomeres, too," Singer points out. The trick is to find a form of exercise that you really enjoy; when your work-out is a chore, your body releases stress hormones that undermine the positive effect of the exercise.
2. Eat mindfully, but don't diet. Omega-3 fatty acids and pistachio nuts (1.5- to 3-ounces per day) are the superfoods to watch for, but eating only when hungry and learning really savor and experience your meals makes more of a difference-and causes less physical and psychological stress-that dieting.
3. Sleep is really important. Without enough, your whole stress threshold is lower. "Don't think of it as a catch-as-catch-can experience," Singer suggests. If you think you'll have trouble sleeping, a hot bath taken 90 minutes before bedtime can help. Our bodies need to be relatively cool in order to achieve that slow-wave sleep that we really need. Soaking in a hot bath elevates your body temperature, and when you get out you cool down rapidly, which helps you slip into a deeper sleep.
4. Counter negativity. That doesn't mean you need to put on those rose-colored glasses, Singer says. Look for the good things in your day and write them down or tell someone about them in order to "bring it into the world" and put things in perspective. Keep a gratitude journal, focus on your strengths rather than your weaknesses, do something nice for someone else, set reasonable and attainable goals, and put a positive spin on a negative experience. An example: "I went to my club to work out and realized I'd left my headphones in my car," Singer says. She started to get upset, and then put a positive spin on the irritating setback: She decided that the walk back to her car and then back to the gym would be her warm-up, so she could jump right into her workout once she retrieved her headphones.
5. Meditate. Or, at least, remember to breathe deeply. It can actually slow down the aging process. Singer writes that daily meditation can lead to an increase in perceived control which, in turn, decreases stress and increases the amount of the enzyme telomerase in your body. More telomerase means longer telomeres.
Stress gets bad "when we're ruminating, we're worrying, we're obsessing about things and we're not expending any of the physical energy," Singer says. "It's in heads, but it's our bodies and brains that pay the price."
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