Does Stress Significantly Accelerate Aging?

25 07 2008
American molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn at the Heidelberg Forum for Bioscience and Society
According to The Times, molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn of the Institute of Microbiology and Immunology, San Francisco is one of the 100 most influential persons in the world. At the Heidelberg Forum for Bioscience and Society, in collaboration with the Network on Age Research (ANR), she spoke on the subject of “Telomerase and the Reasons for Aging”. In the following interview with the Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung she reveals that she expects many more exciting insights on this topic.

They call you the “queen” of the telomeres, which you discovered in 1994 together with Carol Greider. What are telomeres and what is telomerase?

Telomeres are the ends of the chromosomes, those little rod-shaped structures responsible for the transmission of hereditary characteristics. They serve as protective caps because they become a little shorter every time the cell divides. At a certain critical length, the cell stops dividing for good and becomes decrepit. Telomerase is a protein whose job it is to restore the telomeres. The two terms telomere and telomerase are a little confusing. They come from the Greek. Telos means “end” and melos “place”. We had to find a fairly simple term, the phrase “tetrahymenathermophilatelomere terminal transferase” was simply too long. That was the name of the ciliate in which we first discovered the protein and its function.

Two things have been commonly associated with telomeres and telomerase, cancer and aging. Can telomere length be used as an “aging clock”?

Statistically there is a connection between telomere length and age. But you cannot calculate absolute age from telomere length. If we look at tumour cells, we can say that they are immortal, they can go on dividing indefinitely. But their telomeres are short. Instead they have huge amounts of telomerase. This shows that telomerase protects telomeres. So it’s not telomere length alone that determines how often cells can go on dividing.

You have found direct proof of the fact that telomerase activity and hence telomere length can be directly affected by emotional stress. Must we avoid stress if we want a long life?

We investigated immune cells in 58 women, 19 of whom had healthy children to look after and the other 39 chronically sick children. The stressed mothers of the sick children had much shorter telomeres and a weakened immune system. This was the first proof of the influence of the psyche on body cells. The findings astonished us. We also found that patients with a risk of cardiac disease had little telomerase. Science is becoming more interdisciplinary all the time. Ten years ago I’d never have thought that one day I’d be working with psychologists and contemplating an intervention involving meditation to find out whether that would affect telomerase. Separating the brain from the body is really quite unscientific. The brain controls many physiological activities, why shouldn’t the amount of telomerase formation be among them?

Can we lengthen lives by regulating telomerase activity? Or would that inevitably lead to tumour formation?

Telomerase itself is not responsible for tumour formation. The genetics of tumour cells is different, in other words if cells “only” form more telomerase that doesn’t make them immortal. At present the magic pill that would give us more telomerase and lengthen the lives of our cells is just science fiction. Why some people live to be very old and others don’t is still a mystery. When you ask them what they did to live so long, you usually get the same answer: my parents lived just as long. The other answer is always very different: I smoked, I never smoked, I was thin, I was fat, I took plenty of exercise or hardly any at all. So there’s no secret formula. Genetics is one thing and the interplay between genetics and non-genetic factors is intriguing and needs to be investigated closely.
Birgit Teichmann
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