Elissa Epel
Elissa Epel

Q&A: This scientist’s research can predict how long you’ll live

Name: Elissa Epel, Ph.D.
Age: 49
City: San Francisco
Position: Professor, UCSF Department of Psychiatry

J.: For many years, your major field of research has been focused on the intersection of aging, mindfulness and the physiological changes associated with stress, which is the subject of “The Telomere Effect,” a book you co-wrote with your mentor, Nobel laureate Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn. What are telomeres, and what role do they play in the aging process?

Elissa Epel: Telomeres are enzymes that sit at the end of our genes and protect them from damage. They are essentially buffers. What we have learned is that when we experience toxic stress — stress that is traumatic and overwhelming — our telomeres shorten and hasten the aging process. When we look at adults who sustained chronic stress as children, due to poverty and abuse, for example, we see that they have, on average, shorter telomeres.

When you speak of the aging process, are your referring to wrinkles and gray hair?

Well, there are telomeres in the follicles of our hair that keep our hair colored. But when I speak of the aging process, I’m speaking primarily about our internal health more than our external appearance: our hearts, lungs, kidneys and other vital organs that protect us from heart disease, strokes, certain cancers and dementia.

So what can we do to protect our telomeres and keep them longer, stronger and healthier?

Many people are not going to want to hear this, but a plant-based diet that includes a variety of vegetables of different colors is one of the most protective measures. Processed meat that you buy in the grocery store pops out in all the studies as one of the worst things to eat. The amount of exercise we get, of course, is associated with the length of our telomeres.

But what we have also learned is that social support and community involvement are among the best protective agents. When we look at telomeres in older people, we see that volunteering in a program that makes them feel that they are contributing in a meaningful way is very important. Being part of groups — particularly when they are diverse and accepting — can be powerful in their capacity to heal.

In addition to toxic stress, what hastens the fraying of telomeres?

Negative mind-wandering is associated with the aging of cells. So are isolation and depression.

How did you first become interested in telomeres?

I started off with an interest in the mind-body connection and how it affects aging. I was fortunate enough strong to be at UCSF at the same time as Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn. I knocked on her door and said, “I have a sample of women — caregiving moms — who are under a great deal of stress and prone to depression and poor health.” We studied how mindsets can affect you on a molecular level.

Describe your Jewish background.

I grew up in Carmel, California, where I was one of the few Jewish kids in high school. My parents sent me to a Jewish camp, where I met my future husband, Dr. Jack Glaser, who is a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley. We’ve known each other since we were teenagers — for more than 30 years. We have been married for about 25. We still have friendships with the people we met at Camp Swig.

Jack’s father was the late Rabbi Joseph Glaser, who was the executive vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the major association for Reform clergy, and his mother was a Holocaust survivor. Our son went to Brandeis Hillel Day School.

Is there anything in particular that members of the Jewish community can do to protect their telomeres?

Repetitive activities, like prayer, song and candlelighting, have been shown to be restorative. And, of course being part of a group, like a synagogue or another Jewish organization, is helpful — really, anything that promotes connections to others and gives you a sense of purpose in life.

“Talking With” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to [email protected].

Robert Nagler Miller
Robert Nagler Miller

Robert Nagler Miller, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Wesleyan University, received his master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. For more than 25 years, he worked as a writer and editor at a variety of nonprofits in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas. In 2016, he and his husband, Dr. Arnold Friedlander, relocated to Chicago. Robert loves schmoozing, noshing, kvetching, Scrabble, reading and NPR.