Aging is an inevitable part of life – but aging prematurely is not. Premature aging is when the typical effects of growing old; skin deterioration, loss of physical strength, forgetfulness, etc., happen earlier than expected. More scientifically speaking, premature aging occurs when your biological age is older than your real (chronological) age.
From a molecular standpoint, aging is the result of a phenomenon called telomere attrition, or telomere shortening. Telomeres are the protective caps at the end of each strand of DNA that protect our chromosomes (similar to the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces). Each time our cells divide – which is a continuous occurrence, as cells need to divide in order to renew themselves – a piece of telomere is lost until, eventually, they get too short to do their job. When this happens, the cell becomes inactive and loses its ability to renew itself.
A few decades ago, scientists discovered that telomere length represents our biological age and that our biological age doesn’t always match chronological age. Telomere shortening is directly related to a decreased lifespan, whereas longer telomeres are associated with an increase in longevity. It is worth noting, though, that recent evidence also shows that individuals with extremely long telomeres have an increased risk for cancer, which suggests that our goal should perhaps not be increasing telomere length, but instead preventing premature shortening.
So what causes premature telomeric shortening? Researchers have found that telomere length is associated not only with genetics and the natural aging process, but also with certain environmental and lifestyle factors, particularly chronic psychological stress.
Chronic Stress and Telomere Length
Stress isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In its most basic sense, it is a biological response to a perceived threat. Stress helps us survive or avoid injury in dangerous situations and can keep us focused, motivated, and energized when we need it most. But good or positive stress doesn’t usually last for very long, and it becomes problematic when it starts interfering with your daily life and making you feel drained, jittery, and overwhelmed. Continuous exposure to this kind of stress, known as chronic stress, is a major risk factor for telomere shortening and accelerated aging.
Research suggests that chronic stress creates an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants in the body, a phenomenon known as oxidative stress. This, in turn, can lead to something called premature cell senescence. Cell senescence is a complex process in which a cell permanently stops dividing, thus ceasing to regenerate itself. It happens when telomeres become too short to protect the cell’s genetic material, causing the body to age at a faster rate than it should.
Slowing Down the Biological Clock
While reversing or stopping the aging process altogether may not be possible just yet, there are steps you can take to slow down premature aging and work towards making your ‘golden years’ a lot healthier and more joyous. Currently, the single best approach to living longer and aging gracefully is through lifestyle modifications; in fact, following a ‘longevity diet’ high in plant foods and low on red meats and processed ingredients has proven to be the most powerful intervention for living longer.
There are a number of foods, herbs, and vitamins that have been shown to effectively reduce stress and promote mental well-being. Food-wise, fruits and vegetables that are brightly colored tend to be rich in antioxidants that help fight oxidative stress and cellular damage. Examples include red peppers, oranges, carrots, sweet potatoes, blueberries, dark leafy greens, and red onions.
In terms of natural supplements, there’s strong evidence that the following herbs and vitamins, known as adaptogens, can help counteract the effects of mental and physical stress in the body?
A Final Word
While aging is an inevitable part of being alive, there are things you can do to slow down premature aging and reduce the effects of chronic stress in the body. If you feel like life’s daily grind is making you age faster than you’d like, keep in mind that your lifestyle choices can do a lot more than so-called rejuvenating creams and serums. To combat accelerated aging at the molecular level, remember that eating a healthy diet, practicing mindfulness and relaxation techniques, and taking natural supplements that support healthy cognitive functioning and reduce cortisol levels are great allies against telomere shortening.
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