The Science of Living a Long Healthy Life


Elizabeth Blackburn, TED talk 2017
Screen capture of Elizabeth Blackburn’s TED talk

How can you live a longer, healthier life? Megan Nollet and Adam Navis look at telomeres. These tiny parts of your DNA help determine your health.

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Transcript


Voice 1  

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Megan Nollet.

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And I’m Adam Navis. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand no matter where in the world they live.

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Everyone gets old. And everyone dies. But some people are healthy and full of life at the age of 90. Other people have bad health from the age of 50. Why is this? And can we do anything to slow down getting old or aging? Many scientists have studied the processes of aging.

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Elizabeth Blackburn is one such scientist at the University of California in the United States. She won a Nobel Prize for Medicine for her research in biology - the study of life. Her research was about very small parts of the body – telomeres. Most people want to live a long and healthy life. Blackburn discovered that telomeres help us do this. But what are telomeres? Today’s Spotlight is on telomeres and how they influence aging.

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To understand telomeres, Blackburn asks us to think about shoes. Think about how you tie your shoes with shoelaces. You can see a plastic cover on the ends of the shoelace. This cover protects the shoelace from damage. Now imagine that the shoelace is your DNA. It carries all your genetic information. The protective ends are called telomeres.

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Cells in our bodies divide all the time. When this happens the cell has to copy the DNA inside it. But in this process some of the telomere DNA gets shortened. If the telomeres get too short, cells cannot renew. In 2017, in a TED talk, Blackburn explained how this relates to aging:

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‘As we humans age, our telomeres do shorten. And that shortening is aging us. In general, the longer your telomeres the better off you are. It is telomeres getting too short that leads us to feel and see the signs of aging. My skin cells start to die. And I start to see fine lines. Hair colour cells die. You start to see gray. Immune system cells die. You increase your risks of getting sick.’

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Blackburn and other scientists also discovered that we can control the length of our telomeres. We can even increase the lengths of our telomeres. Some people have asked if this means we could stop aging completely. But the answer is no. In her TED talk, Blackburn warned that this research is not about living forever,

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‘I want to get one thing clear. It is not about greatly extending the length of human life or living forever. It is about health span. Health span is the number of years of your life when you are free of disease. You are healthy. You are productive. You are enjoying life. Disease span is the opposite of health span. It is the time of your life spent feeling old and sick and dying.’

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So how can we control the length of our telomeres? How do we keep them healthy? Blackburn and other scientists have discovered many ways for us to do this. Many of these ideas are general health advice. For example, one way to keep telomeres healthy is that we should exercise. We do not have to exercise hard every day. We can just exercise by walking quickly. Blackburn told the Guardian newspaper,

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‘People who do moderate exercise - about three times a week for 45 minutes - have telomeres about as long as people who run long distance races.’

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If we eat healthy food this also helps to keep our telomeres healthy. We should eat fruit and vegetables. We should avoid red meat, sugary drinks and highly-processed foods.

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Our mental health can also affect our telomeres. Blackburn did some more work with another scientist called Elissa Epel. Epel is an expert in how long-term stress or mental pressure affects our health. She worked with mothers who look after children with long-term sickness. Epel wondered what happened to their telomeres. Blackburn and Epel studied this together for four years. They found that the longer the mother cared for the sick child the shorter were her telomeres. Blackburn explained their results in her TED talk,

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‘So we had discovered something new. The more long-term stress you are under, the shorter your telomeres. This means you are more probably going to have an early disease span and even early death.’

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But Blackburn and Epel also found hope in their study. They found that people under stress could do something to protect their telomeres. Some of the mothers in their study had kept their telomeres healthy. These mothers were quick to recover from stress. This was because their attitude was different. The mothers did not see their situation as a danger or something to fear. They saw it as a challenge or something that required special effort. So Blackburn and Epel discovered a positive attitude is good for our health.

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Other scientists followed with more studies about telomeres and stress. In one study, scientists studied people who cared for an old member of the family. The carers had a difficult and stressful job. You would expect their telomeres to become short. But scientists discovered that this did not happen IF the carers did something simple and easy. Every day the carers had a time of deep quiet thinking or meditation. And they only had to do this for 12 minutes a day for two months.

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We all have power to affect our telomeres and our health span. But Blackburn and Epel discovered more. They discovered that experiencing violence or poor treatment from other people affects your telomeres. So we have the power to affect the telomeres belonging to other people. In her TED talk, Blackburn explained this social quality:

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‘People who do not feel safe where they live always have shorter telomeres. But close communities, being in a good long marriage, and having lifelong friends all improve telomere health. This tells us that I have power to affect my own telomeres. And I also have the power to affect yours. Telomere science has told us just how connected with each other we all are.’

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Will you behave differently now you know about telomeres? What things do you already do to keep your body healthy? You can leave a comment on our website. Or email us at radio@radioenglish.net. You can comment on Facebook at Facebook.com/spotlightradio.

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The writer of this programme was Katy Blake. The producer was Michio Ozaki. The voices you heard were from the United States and the United Kingdom. All quotes were adapted for the programme and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this programme again, and read it, on the internet at www.radioenglish.net. There, you can also find a link to Dr. Blackburn’s TED talk. This programme is called ‘The Science of Living a Long Healthy Life’.

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Visit our website to download our free official app for Android or Apple devices. We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight programme. Goodbye.

Question:

What things do you do to keep your body healthy?

Comments


Avatar Spotlight
Honneur
said on September 16, 2019

Well, I think I do everything doctor Blackburn recommends. Let’s look my day today. I woke up at 8:00 AM and ate a portion of fruits salad with mango, banana, orange, apple, melon, avocado, and papaya. Then, I went to the gym and made exercises of elongation; weight lifting; byke for 30 minutes and walking for 20 minutes. Then I work in my office. At lunchtime, I had a big plate of salad and some meat. Come back to my office and work until 7:00 PM. Saw television newspapers and now I’m studying English. I am 82 years old…