Pay attention to this story as if your life depended on it.

That's because thinking about things other than the task at hand can seriously up your anxiety level. Not to stress you out or anything, but that might make you age faster, get sick and die, according to The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer, a book from molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn and health psychologist Elissa Epel.

Blackburn (and two colleagues) won the Nobel Prize in 2009 for the discovery of telomerase, the enzyme that replenishes the bits of DNA on either end of your chromosomes. Those bits are called telomeres, and they're often compared to the plastic caps on shoelaces.

Elizabeth Blackburn won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2009. Photo / Getty
Elizabeth Blackburn won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2009. Photo / Getty

Let those caps wear down, and the laces fray and can't do their job. It's the same with telomeres: Stress makes them shorter. And if they get too short, your cells stop dividing, which leads to pain, heart disease and other health woes - all markers of what the authors dub the "diseasespan." (The idea is that we have a healthspan and a diseasespan during our lives, and people with short telomeres move into their diseasespan earlier.)


Pictures of shoelaces are scattered throughout the book. Spot one, and you're supposed to "refocus your mind on the present, take a deep breath, and think of your telomeres being restored with the vitality of your breath."

It's a strategy based on the book's promising premise: Even if you're a total stress case, it's possible to reverse the negative effects by transforming how you respond to situations.

The key, the authors explain, is to develop a "challenge" response. Basically, instead of crumbling under the pressure of responsibilities or events, you should have a "bring it on!" mentality. It also helps to banish negativity, practice self-compassion and not be an idiot about your health (i.e., get enough sleep and physical activity, cut out processed foods and smoking.)

The bad news is that some people start off at a telomere disadvantage, Blackburn and Epel found. That includes a newborn whose parent has shortened telomeres, which get passed on, folks who live in unsafe or littered neighborhoods or one without nearby greenery. Another way to wind up with shorter telomeres, the authors write, is to be African American and experience discrimination.

For everyone to have the telomeres they deserve, a lot needs to change in the world, the authors say in their concluding Telomere Manifesto. Among their action items: "Reduce inequality" and "clean up local and global toxins."

So it's a bit more complicated than shoelaces.