The power to age well is within our reach. Less than 20% of our aging is preprogrammed within our DNA, while the rest is highly influenced by our lifestyle and life choices. Stored in a woman’s reproductive tract are powerful signals that significantly impact the health and wellbeing of her generations to come. For women the gene-environment connection, or epigenome, plays a powerful role in shaping her offspring’s health destiny.
While the science of aging is complex, there are four primary pillars underlying our capacity to age well. We can proactively strengthen these four pillars to extend our healthspan and lifespan. And for women, these four factors serve as posts to the gates of health and longevity for her generations to come. Indeed, women are gatekeepers to aging.
- Telomeres as limits to our Lifespan.
Telomeres set a biological limit to longevity. Non-coding protective DNA capping our chromosomes, telomeres shorten as we age. Genetic and lifestyle risks, can lead to shortening of telomeres and accelerated cellular aging. Stress is a toxic trigger of telomere loss. Although women are born with longer telomeres than men, telomere shortening is much more likely to be triggered in women by chronic stress and lifestyle factors. The female telomere advantage is most notably lost in times of stress. Mothers who are caregiving to children with chronic illness have been shown to have dramatically shortened telomeres. The Noble prize winning research into telomeres and aging was performed in this stressed group of women who demonstrated advanced aging. To date, one of the most robust ways to lengthen and protect telomeres from the deleterious effects of stress is in fact through stress reducing techniques like meditation, deep breathing, tai chi and enjoying time in nature. These stress busters can lengthen telomeres and promote a longer, happier life!
- Epigenetics shape our HealthSpan
While telomere length and variaions in about 200 genes may influence longevity, our healthspan is largely determined by our epigenome, the complex set of gene-environment interactions. The epigenetic code is a three-dimensional super-code that scaffolds the genome predominantly through DNA methylation patterns and determines genetic expression, metabolism and function. Genetic susceptibilities to diet include heightened risk for gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, cancer, advanced cellular aging and inflammation. Epigenetic risk held in our methylation pattern is primarily passed on via maternal transmission. Women, therefore, play a pivotal role in transmitting epigenetic risks to their offspring.
- Hormones as Vital Messengers of Health and Longevity
Our hormones shape our health, risks and aging in direct ways by binding their tissue receptors and indirect ways by binding nuclear receptors and changing gene expression. Hormonal signaling changes with aging, genetic variation, and under the influence of lifestyle. Changes in estrogen signaling, can increase the risk of hormone related disease like breast cancer. Estrogen is an important longevity hormone- and directly affects telomeres and other aging genes. Women who experience a late menopause, after the age of 43 years, have a longer life expectancy but also a higher risk of breast cancer. Optimizing hormonal health throughout our lifespan, and especially during the menopause transition, can promote both improved health and longevity.
- Mind Body Connections and Transformation
The body achieves what the mind believes. Our thoughts, mindset, and perspective can be powerful predictors of our wellbeing. Having a state of mind rooted in optimism, with a strong sense of self and mind-body awareness can help us achieve the full potential encoded in our DNA. In fact, negativity and rumination have been shown to adversely alter gene expression while daily mindfulness practices and spirituality can help us overcome physical challenges or genetic susceptibilities. For women, the power of positive psychology extends to her offspring through epigenetic transmission. A happy mom makes a healthy family.
While women are biologically and hormonally advantaged to age well, they are more susceptible to lifestyle risks in a way that can be inherited by their offspring. Genes, telomeres, hormones and lifestyle combine into a risk profile that can be transmitted by a woman to her unborn children. In this way, women play an important role gatekeepers of health and longevity.
Our DNA is not our destiny. Our health and longevity can be shaped by our lifestyle and life choices. Decoding our unique risks, we can harness leading science to take charge of our aging and live our best life.