Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel
2017 | 398pp | £14.99
Ageing. It’s a topic that never gets old. Humans have been searching for the Holy Grail for centuries but have yet to find one fix to cure all ills.
Lengthening or at least maintaining the length of your telomeres, however, could be the simple strategy most of us are after to delay the grey hairs, crow’s feet, stiff joints, memory loss and poor health that come with age.
Telomeres are nucleoprotein complexes that guard the end of our chromosomes. In mammals, they contain repeats of the nucleotide sequence TTAGGG. Each time our cells divide, our telomeres get shorter, so telomere length is a handy biological marker for ageing.
Elizabeth Blackburn (along with Carol Greider and Jack Szostak) received the Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine ‘for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase’ in 2009. Now, Blackburn has teamed up with Elissa Epel, a psychologist, to write The telomere effect.
The book is something between a self-help manual and a review article you’d find in a scientific journal. It has four sections and kicks off by giving the reader a basic understanding of what telomeres and telomerase are, and their role in ageing. Sections two and three link mental health and physical health, respectively, with the length of your telomeres. The book concludes by looking at what the authors call the social world, including environment and parenting, and how you can manage that aspect of your life to maintain your telomeres.
Minimise stress, take regular exercise, get enough sleep, don’t smoke and don’t eat too much processed food – this book isn’t going to give you much health advice you haven’t already heard. But by backing these suggestions up with studies rather than anecdotes it might give you the incentive to curb your bad habits and live a more telomere-friendly existence. Ideally, you’ll read this book when you’re still young, but the authors are endlessly optimistic that it’s never too late to have a positive influence on your telomeres.
In some ways, I finished the book feeling dissatisfied. Based on the book’s title and that it was written by key players in the research field, I expected it to contain a deeper scientific explanation linking my lifestyle choices with the length of my telomeres. But on the other hand, I felt empowered and full of ideas to better look after myself. So go for that walk at lunchtime, buy yourself a pot plant and listen to some relaxing music – your telomeres will thank you. TTAGGGTTAGGGTTAGGGTTAGGG.
The telomere effect features in this month’s book club podcast. Hear an interview with Elissa Epel, a reading from the book, and the thoughts of theChemistry World team.