Anyone who dared try out the face transformation app FaceApp caught a terrifying glimpse of how they might look once their peak years are over. While we characterize tired eyes, wrinkles, and white hair as clear signs of aging, what they really show are the effects of shortening telomeres — the protective bits at the ends of our DNA strands that constitute the Nobel Prize-winning work of the biologist Elizabeth Blackburn.

In a TED Talk on Thursday, Blackburn, a professor at the University of California San Francisco, recapped decades of work showing that telomeres — which resemble the protective plastic at the end of a shoelace — naturally get shorter as we age. But some people’s telomeres shrink faster than usual, and Blackburn doesn’t think their genetics are entirely to blame. Society, she revealed, has a big role to play too.

“I have the power to impact my own telomeres, and I also have the power to impact yours,” she said in her talk. “Telomere science has told us how interconnected we all are.”

Telomeres at the ends of chromosomes get shorter every time a cell copies its DNA, but external factors can speed up the process.
Telomeres at the ends of chromosomes get shorter every time a cell copies its DNA, but external factors can speed up the process.

We all feel like day-to-day stress ages us faster than usual, but Blackburn’s work showed actual proof that it does. It all happens at the level of the cell: When a cell splits into two — which happens constantly as the body grows and renews itself — it has to copy its DNA, and every time that process takes place, the DNA’s telomeres get a little bit shorter. After a human lifetime’s worth of dividing, the cell’s telomeres shrink into nothingness, and the cell dies. That process is what constitutes aging, says Blackburn, and it speeds up when we’re consistently stressed out.

And what stresses us out more than other people?

Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn gave a TED Talk in Vancouver on Thursday.
Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn gave a TED Talk in Vancouver on Thursday.

Blackburn discovered the link between stress and telomere shortening when she looked at the telomeres of moms of kids with chronic illnesses. Sure enough, these stressed-out women had shorter telomeres than usual, and the shortness of those telomeres correlated with the amount of time they spent caring for the kids — not their age.

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This proved to Blackburn that factors “outside our own skin” — like other people — could speed up the aging process. She’s particularly concerned about kids, because her work has shown that the damage of stressful situations to their telomeres takes effect early and lasts a long time.

“As early as childhood, emotional neglect, exposure to violence, bullying, and racism all impact telomeres, and the effects are long term,” she says. “Can you imagine the impact on children of living years in a war zone?”

The good news is that Blackburn has also discovered an enzyme she called “telomerase” that counter-balances the aging effects of shortening telomeres. This enzyme’s job is to maintain telomere length — and it’s important to note that it’s more active in people who view stressful situations as challenges rather than insurmountable problems. That, to Blackburn, is a sign that aging isn’t inevitable but is at least partially under our control, and she argues that we’re responsible for controlling for the factors that affect telomere length in ourselves and in others.

“We have more control over this particular aging process than any of us could have ever imagined,” she said.

Photos via TitaNovo, TED Talks