Everyone ages, but we have more control over the ageing process than you might think.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Everyone ages, but we have more control over the ageing process than you might think. The key is in protecting our telomeres – a key component in our chromosome cell structure – using self-repair methods like meditation and a fresh diet. Here’s what else you need to know 

While you’d have to be living in dreamland to think you could outrun the ageing process, a growing amount of scientific evidence says we have more power over how we age than many of us realise. So how much of it is determined by our genes, and to what extent does our lifestyle have an impact?

It’s all about the telomeres

When it comes to ageing, it all starts with what’s happening deep inside our cells. Within the cellular structure are chromosomes, which carry our genetic makeup, and on the ends of these chromosomes are protective caps made of protein – these are the telomeres. When we are born, their length is equal to 10,000 base pairs. By the time we’re 35, the length has reduced to only 7,500 base pairs. When telomeres become shortened, our cells cannot replenish as effectively, and this is what impacts how we biologically age.

Two leading researchers on ageing, Nobel Laureate molecular biologist Professor Elizabeth Blackburn and Professor Elissa Epel, have dedicated the past 20 years to the study of cell changes. They say as the years tick by, we can think of our body like a barrel full of apples.

“A healthy human cell is like one of these fresh, shiny apples. But what happens if there’s a rotten apple in the barrel? It will make the other apples around it rotten too. This rotten apple is like an aged cell.”

Their research has found that “many old cells are like zombies, no longer able to fulfil their functions. They are unable to react normally to stresses any more, regardless of whether they are physical or mental.” And this shows as grey hair, wrinkles or pigmented moles. Our appearance is virtually a 1:1 reflection of our “cellular age”. But what makes us look old?

“The current scientific theory of ageing states that the DNA in our cells gets increasingly damaged over time, resulting in cells irreversibly ageing and no longer being able to properly fulfil their function,” Prof Blackburn and Prof Epel explain. “We’ve always wondered which DNA gets damaged and what damages it.”

Their search for answers kept leading researchers to the same point right at the genetic heart of our cells – the so-called telomeres. Experts say we can imagine them as being similar to the plastic protective caps on the ends of shoelaces, and they have been found to play a key role in determining how quickly our cells age, when they die, and when we increasingly lose the ability to heal illnesses and stay healthy.

Protecting our cells

When it comes to how “set in stone” ageing is, American obesity researcher George Bray puts it like this: “Genes load the gun, and the environment pulls the trigger”.

How well we age largely depends on the health of our cells, and more and more research indicates that everything we do determines how long we stay biologically young – and look it too.

When healthy cells regenerate, their telomeres remain functional. Every time they split, the protective caps ensure that the sensitive genetic makeup is copied in full, true to original, without any damage. But this protection wears away a little more each time – until it is eventually so short that the cell is “switched off”.

That’s not the only thing that happens: If the cell is no longer able to split, it becomes “disoriented and exhausted”, say Prof Blackburn and Prof Epel. “It no longer properly understands the signals it receives, and they in turn no longer send the right messages. Old cells also trigger false alarms by releasing inflammatory substances in the body.”

These and other processes not only make us look older, they also increase the risk of weakened immunity, diabetes or cardiovascular complaints. Worse still, these senior cells are no longer able to properly dispose off their waste products, and research says the hazardous deposits can contribute to neurological diseases.

The solution? We need to keep the protection of our sensitive DNA stable for as long as possible. Having healthy telomeres is a key factor, as is having good amounts of the enzyme telomerase, which is able to repair and restore our chromosome protectors.

This is where lifestyle factors like minimising stress, getting enough sleep and exercising regularly come in, as experts say these can truly benefit our health at a cellular level. Research has found telomeres don’t simply execute commands issued by our genetic code.

“They listen to us,” say Prof Blackburn and Prof Epel. “They accept the instructions we give them. Our lifestyle can order them to speed up the cell-ageing process. But it can also do the opposite.”


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"Other foods that help keep cells healthy and young are green, leafy vegetables, oranges, bananas, berries, and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and bok choy, which have plenty of vitamins and minerals "



Apples are an excellent fountain of youth. Their fruit acid acts like an anti-wrinkle agent, and over 600 carotenoids protect the skin from UV damage. One clinical study on crow’s feet has shown that applying apple stem cells in a cream form (from pharmacies) for 28 days significantly reduces wrinkles.


These zesty fruits are high in vitamin C, which is not only good for our immunity, but also for maintaining young-looking skin. The reason? It helps reduce discoloured skin cells faster.


Water has a cleansing effect in the body. More waste products can be flushed out, preventing vascular diseases and ageing processes. Aim to drink two litres a day.


Feeling secure protects our cells from stress: If we’re near friends and family, our body releases fewer celldamaging substances, according to findings from a study conducted by the University of Utah.



Excess fatty tissue around the stomach is particularly dangerous, as it encourages inflammation, which damages immune cells. Reducing calories by 30 per cent reduces cell wear and tear.


According to an American study, overweight teens were put on either a high or low sodium diet – those who ate more salt had significantly shorter telomeres than their peers. Season food with no more than 8 g of salt and at least 20 g of herbs a day.


Lying activates stress hormones, which can cause various health problems. Participants in an Australian study reported that, after 10 weeks of only telling the truth, they felt less mental tension. They also had fewer complaints like sore throats or headaches.


Tension, varicose veins, headaches, circulatory problems and diabetes. More and more diseases can now be traced back to sitting. One study has found that the likelihood of dying in the next three years is 40 per cent higher among people who sit for more than eleven hours a day, compared to those who sit for fewer than four hours.

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"Genes load the gun, and the environment pulls the trigger"

"Want to slow the clock? Try these scientifically-proven steps to promote cell health"

1 Address your issues

While short stints of stress can damage our chromosome protection, self-repair mechanisms step in to eliminate the stress once it has passed. Long episodes of mental strain and unresolved trauma, on the other hand, have a far greater impact on our telomeres. Meditation can be particularly effective, with studies showing that people who practice meditation every day for at least three months have a 30 per cent higher telomerase level than others.

2 Make it 7+

Rest is so vital for our health that studies have found the longer we sleep, the longer our telomeres are. Experts say we should all be getting a minimum of seven hours’ shut-eye a night. Prof Blackburn says getting five hours or less sleep each night has a negative effect on hormones and insulin regulation, and leads to shorter telomeres, which hinders cell renewal.

3 Get out of breath

German researchers found walking or running at a rate of around 60 per cent of our maximum level was more effective than weight training for protecting cells. If we exert ourselves to the point that we feel challenged, but can still easily hold a conversation, for three 40-minute sessions per week, we boost the activation of telomerase.

4 Forget flour

Foods rich in simple carbohydrates, like white breads, cakes and pastries, prompt our pancreas to release more and more insulin, often to the point of exhaustion. The insulin-producing cells age too quickly and die, which can lead to diabetes. The sugar spike that often comes from these foods is also damaging to cell health, and even our appearance, as sugar “gums up” proteins responsible for promoting healthy, supple skin.

5 Stay focused

Believe it or not, a wandering mind can be detrimental to cell health. A study conducted by the University of California San Francisco has shown that people whose minds are often wandering, rather than being focused on the task at hand, have much shorter telomeres on immune cells. But good news: Concentration can be trained with mindfulness.

6 Eat fresh

Premature ageing of the skin is caused by aggressive environmental substances, though these can be combated with certain antibodies. Eating 150 g of vegetables (like onions, capsicums and tomatoes) every day can supply us with these cell protectors.