According to Elissa Epel, PhD, part of aging is explained by telomeres, the protective DNA caps on the ends of our chromosomes. Longer telomeres are associated with longer “healthspans”—the number of healthy, high-quality years we enjoy—while shorter telomeres are linked to everything from dementia to heart disease and wrinkles.
And while stress and poor diet have both been tied to the latter, Dr. Epel notes that there’s also a correlation between telomere length and the quality of our relationships. Ask yourself who makes you feel positive about yourself and supported—those are the relationships that are good for health.
“In older people, having greater levels of social support is associated with longer telomeres,” says the psychologist, who directs the University of California San Francisco’s Aging, Metabolism, and Emotions Lab and co-authored the book The Telomere Effect along with Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD. “In animal studies, social isolation and exposure to social stress is associated with greater telomere shortening,” Dr. Epel says.
It may not just matter how often you connect with others, but also whether you cultivate healthy habits together. “One large sample, for a genetic study, showed that married couples tended to have similar telomere lengths—especially if they were over 70 years old,” Epel says. “This may be due to sharing common influences, good and bad, through our lives.”
And yes, sex may be a productive way to pass your social time, at least from a genetic perspective—Epel says that in one study of married couples, those who reported being sexually intimate in the past week had longer telomeres than those who didn’t.
So while self-care is often associated with alone time, it may be worth including other people in your R&R efforts now and then. “All arrows point to staying socially connected and doing things that are good for society, and our cells respond [by] flourishing rather than early sickness,” says Epel. Meal prep party, anyone?
You can bet on hearing a lot more about telomeres in 2018. And here are the foods to eat for a super-long life, according to some of the oldest people in the world.
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