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Don’t Believe Everything You Think: How Thought Patterns Affect Aging

Posted by Kathy Laster on 06/20/2017
This past week, Cristina and I spoke at OUHSC College of Pharmacy Summer Symposium on Leadership, a program close to our hearts that we help design and deliver as faculty. There, one of our favorite professional colleagues, Dr. R. Murali Krishna, shared his work on resilience, mindfulness, and the interconnected mind-body-spirit dynamics. His excellent discussion on the physiological effects of anger and chronic stress linked us to Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel’s Nobel-Prize-winning research on telomeres and their effects on aging. Their research sheds light on how to increase not only your lifespan, but our health-span (the number of years that we remain active and healthy).
 
Telomeres are emerging as a goldmine topic in the scientific, medical, and psychosocial communities. Like the plastic tips on shoelace strings, telomeres are the protective caps found at the tips of our chromosomes. These segments of non-coding DNA keep the important genetic material inside from unraveling. However, our telomeres shorten with each cell division, helping to determine how quickly a cell ages.

Recent studies have shown that the shortening of telomeres can be accelerated or slowed by environmental and behavioral factors. Even more astounding, Blackburn and Epel’s book, “The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to living Younger, Healthier, Longer”, reveals how thought patterns—the default modes of our mental life—affect how we age!

Leaving Dr. Krishna’s talk, I was amazed by the notion that we are not just at the mercy of our genetics; we can actually impact our genetic expression through our lifestyle choices and even our thoughts. Knowing which thought patterns have negative affects on our telomeres equips us with the ability to not only identify, but modify those patterns for our benefit. This boosts the expression, “mind over matter” to a whole new level!
 

The Five to Watch Out For
Blackburn and Epel describe five negative thought patterns that are unhealthy for telomeres. These patterns, “automatic, exaggerated, and controlling,” prevent one from seeing what’s really going on around you—“it’s as if they tie a blindfold around your brain”—and often lead to serious health-related problems.
  1. The first pattern is cynical hostility. Defined by high levels of anger and continual distrustful thoughts, cynical hostility creates the ongoing perception that others deliberately inconvenience or harm you. This pattern prolongs stress hormones (i.e. cortisol) in the body and puts one at higher risk of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, even premature death. In a study of British civil servants, men who scored high on cynical hostility had shorter telomeres than men with lower hostility scores.
  2. Pessimism adversely affects telomeres. In a small study of about 35 women, Blackburn and Epel found that people who scored high on a pessimism inventory had shorter telomeres, a finding consistent with other studies, including a study of 1,000+ men. Like hostility, pessimism poses health risks and accelerates the progression of illness in people with aging-related diseases.
  3. The third pattern, rumination, is defined by repeatedly rehashing problems. Though reflection is the “natural introspective analysis about why things happen a certain way” and can be productive, rumination is never productive, leading only to more ruminating. Stress persists and manifests in the body as high blood pressure, elevated heart rate, and increased cortisol levels. Rumination affects the nervous system, as the vagus nerve (responsible for stabilizing your heart rate and steadying the digestive system, among many other vital functions) “withdraws its activity” in response. Those who chronically exhibit this thought pattern, “experience more depression and anxiety, which are, in turn, associated with shorter telomeres.”
  4. Thought suppression—the attempt to push away undesired thoughts and emotions—leads to a phenomenon, “ironic error,” that may be harmful to telomeres. The late Harvard social psychologist, Daniel Wegener, conducted experiments on ironic error, where he concluded, “the more forcefully you push your thoughts away, the louder they call out for your attention.” Thought suppression is harmful, because, rather than making things easier on ourselves, suppressing negative thoughts makes it more difficult; when habitually engaging in this pattern, we unintentionally increase cognitive load, further straining our already-taxed mental and physical resources. This compounds stress effects and makes us more susceptible to disorders like depression.
  5. The last thought pattern to be aware of for negative telomere effects is mind wandering—and in particular, letting negative thoughts claim your attention in the present, or wishing you were somewhere else. Sometimes mind wandering can be creative, but it can also lead to decreased happiness in the immediate next moments and, “higher levels of resting stress hormones.”
A study by Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert, using a “track your happiness” iPhone app to survey thousands of men and women, suggests that we spend as much as 50% of each day in a mind wandering state, thinking about something other than what we’re doing in the present. Blackburn and Epel found that women with the highest self-reported mind wandering (regardless of stress levels) have shorter telomeres by an average of 200 base pairs. (To put this in perspective, the average 35-year-old has approximately 7,500 base pairs, whereas a 65-year-old has 4,800.)
 

Thought Awareness Increases Stress Resilience
Stress used to be a special case, but today, chronic stress is typical. The level of stress we experience every day is exponentially increasing as our society becomes more complex. We see that reflected in suicide rates, health problems, and professional burnout.
 
When you become more aware of your thoughts and the types of thought patterns you regularly engage in, you can remove the blindfold; you have more clarity and control of your mental life, and therefore, can promote improved physical health.
Dr. Krishna advises 
three practices for reducing negative thought patterns, and in turn, fostering healthy telomeres:
  1. Name the negative thought or emotion. Simply acknowledging and naming a negative feeling can immediately diffuse the effect it has on the body by relieving and ridding stress hormones.
  2. Practice gratitude. Regularly articulating what you’re thankful for, whether verbally or keeping a journal, is not only good for your mental and social life, but it’s also good for your physical health; it has been shown to enhance the immune system response.
  3. Use mindfulness to stay in the moment. Especially when under stress, taking a moment to be present and engaged—like noticing the temperature and pressure of the water while you’re taking a shower— can reduce anxiety and promote resilience. Dr. Krishna explains more about mindfulness here: 
http://www.drkrishna.com/mindfulness-the-untapped-innate-catalyst-for-healing-happiness-and-health/
 
With practice over time, you can learn to encounter negative thought patterns and acknowledge them, saying, “This is only a thought. It will fade.” Perhaps you can even reverse the effects of aging with healthy thought patterns, as Blackburn and Epel’s research has shown that telomeres can even lengthen in some cases. It just might be that watching your thoughts—and fostering healthy telomeres—gives a glimpse of the elusive fountain of youth!
 

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