Misao Osaka -- the world's oldest person -- turned 117-years-old today. When asked how she achieved such an advanced age, Mrs. Osaka claims to be as baffled as most of us about the secret to longevity. "I wonder about that, too," she tells a reporter.
Some scientists, however, may be within sighting distance of the processes at work in advanced senescence. Their work could help the rest of us live longer, healthier lives on purpose.
Elizabeth Blackburn is a professor in the department of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco. While doing post-doctoral work in the late 1970's, she and her Harvard collaborator Jack Szostak mapped the structure and function of telomeres, the protective endcaps on our chromosomes. Telomeres protect the genes and play an important role in aging. Like the candles on a birthday cake, telomeres wear down over time, and as telomeres age, so do we.
A few years later, Blackburn and her graduate student, Carol Greider discovered telomerase, an enzyme that does two things to slow aging: it diminishes the activity of the stress hormone cortisol and it regenerates telomeres. Doing the unsexy things that we all know are good for us -- eat well, get enough sleep, and get some exercise -- are all effective ways to reduce cortisol, and give telomerase a chance to regenerate shortening telomeres.
However, on the other, less quotidian hand, Blackburn and her colleague Elissa Epel also found that mindfulness meditation could override the body's flight or fight response and regenerate telomeres. On its face, this hypothesis might seem a bit -- for lack of a better term -- "woo woo," but, there is good science underlying it.
In stressful situations, whether it is the short term stress of sitting in traffic when you're already late for a meeting, or the chronic stress of, say, taking care of elderly relative or gravely ill child, our sympathetic nervous systems prepare us to respond to what it can only imagine is a charging tiger by releasing cortisol. When the stress producing situation passes, the cortisol ebbs. If you are chronically stressed, cortisol can take its toll by aging your cells and making you prone to age-related diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and even certain types of cancer.
Blackburn and Epel found that subjects who practiced a form of mindfulness meditation -- even for short stretches of time -- dialed down their stress responses. Over time, their telomeres regenerated, too.
The average American lives about 80 years and within a decade, there will be one billion people over age 60 worldwide. This can have a tremendous impact on our public health systems, and so, we should consider all of the avenues to ensuring that as many of us as possible are as healthy as possible as we grow (potentially) much older. Without a doubt, developing life saving drugs is a priority, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't investigate the alternatives too.
Mrs. Osaka lives in Japan where she is one of 58,000 centenarians. Getting to the biological bottom for their longevity could shift the aging paradigm in a way that benefits us all.