As each year goes by, we get a little older and a little less sprightly. But is it possible that you’re thinking your way into gray hairs and more wrinkles? Do thoughts make you age faster? That’s what a scientist and psychologist are proposing in their new book.
Telo-what? Telomeres and Aging
Now, there’s no sorcery or mind control involved here. Instead, the authors point to the damaging effects that negative thought patterns can have on telomeres.
While you might not have heard of telomeres before, they’re an integral part of the aging process. Telomeres are segments of DNA at the end of chromosomes that keep the chromosomes from fraying or damaging each other, which can lead to cell malfunction.
Each time a cell divides, its telomeres get shorter. Eventually, when the telomeres become too short to divide any longer, the cell usually becomes inactive or dies. This happens throughout our bodies all the time and, interestingly, is linked to our own aging; the length of our telomeres helps determine when a cell should die.
It seems like telomeres should function in a linear fashion: telomeres shorten, you age, and eventually, when all our telomeres are too short and our cells are dead, we die. Except that’s not quite the case. Telomeres can actually be lengthened. And if telomeres are lengthened, that means that aging can be slowed down or maybe even reversed. You could turn back time in your body, essentially — we’ll get to that later.
But there’s always a yin and a yang. If we can do things that will lengthen our telomeres, that means that certain actions can shorten them, too.
And that’s where our thoughts come in. Scientists have found that certain negative thought patterns can shorten telomeres, leading to cells aging and dying earlier, increasing the risk of disease and, ultimately, death.
The Thought Patterns That Can Lead to Aging
So, do thoughts make you age faster? In particular, what types of thoughts are linked to shortened telomeres?
1. Cynical hostility. If you’re often angry, mistrustful of others and think everyone’s out to get you, you’re likely cynically hostile. People who are angry and hostile are more likely to have cardiovascular disease — and are shortening the life of their telomeres.
A study of 434 men and women found that men who were the most hostile were likelier to have short telomeres and high levels of telomerase activity. Telomerase is an enzyme that helps keep telomeres healthy. Telomerase activity was higher in these people, the researchers suggest, because it’s trying to compensate for the anger and hostility shortening telomeres.
“Wait, you’re being killed off? Here, we’ll send some extra help in to try and keep this from happening.” Interestingly, cynical hostility had a greater effect on men than women. The cynical men also had higher blood pressure levels, were less optimistic and had fewer social connections.
2. Pessimism. Is the glass always half empty? You could be sabotaging the length of your telomeres. One small study of 35 adults found that those who had more negative expectations for the future actually had shorter telomeres than their more optimistic peers. A larger study of 1,010 men found that those with more pessimistic attitudes had shorter telomere lengths, even after adjusting for any health issues.
3. Rumination. Do you rehash arguments or dwell on whether you said the wrong thing at that meeting over and over? You’re doing a disservice to your telomeres. While healthy reflection is necessary to keep us from making the same mistakes, there’s a difference between thoughtfully considering something for a bit and then moving on and ruminating. Because the latter provides no conclusion, you find yourself thinking and stressing about the same things with no end in sight.
In one of the studies the authors did, the longer that healthy female caregivers dwelled on stressful events, the less telomerase they had in their cells. It’s likely that’s because when you’re ruminating on something, you’re feeling the stress from it for much longer. We already know that chronic stress is super damaging to your body, affecting your brain, increasing your risk of disease and lowering your immune system’s defenses. Now we know that it speeds up aging, too.
4. Suppression. Another thought pattern that can cause telomeres to age more quickly is suppressing your thoughts. It might seem counterintuitive; if ruminating too much is harmful, shouldn’t suppressing a stressful event be a good thing? Not so fast. The energy and stress it takes to try to shove things out of your mind is taxing on the body, too.
If, instead of dealing with a problem, you try and pretend it doesn’t exist, your mind and body spend an unbelievable amount of time trying to make that happen, creating evenmore stress. The cycle never ends! And one small study has found that avoiding negative thoughts and emotions can lead to shorter telomeres.
5. Mind wandering. Finally, not giving full attention to what you’re doing can shorten telomeres. A study of nearly 250 women found that those individuals who had the highest levels of mind wandering had telomeres significantly shorter than the others, no matter how much stress they had in their lives.
This could be because when you’re not mindfully engaged in things, you aren’t as tuned in and happy as when you’re paying attention. It’s incredible how much our bodies absorb from our thoughts. And if you find your thoughts constantly wander to negative things … well, you see where I’m going with this.
Do Thoughts Make You Age Faster? Not If You Keep Telomeres Long and Luscious
We’re all going to have bad days. Heck, most of us will have bad weeks or even months. But that doesn’t mean we must let negativity take over our minds. Thoughts make you age faster? Not if you diligent with your mental health.
Practicing “mind exercises” like mindfulness and meditation can help us work through stressful thoughts in a productive way. They also reduce stress, keeping us from flying off the handle. Alongside those methods, other natural stress relievers are worth exploring.
Exercising not only strengthens our bodies, but our telomeres as well. And when we exercise, we also get an endorphins boost, which helps us feel good. That runner’s high? It’s real, and it’s likely helping your telomeres stay longer as well.
Finally, while thoughts are quite damaging, being cognizant of what you’re feeding your cells is important, too. Foods rich in antioxidants, like fruits and veggies, give your cells a competitive edge by providing them with as many nourishing nutrients as possible. Feed your cells junk and they’ll behave accordingly.
There’s a saying that goes “every cell in your body is listening to your thoughts.” When it comes to aging, nothing could be truer. The secret to aging? Get rid of the negativity.