By Dr. Jennifer Pearlman
The new science of aging suggests that the power to age well lies within our reach. We are not preprogrammed for aging as less than 20% of our mortality is predetermined by our genetic code. Gene-environment interactions, known as epigenetics, impact our aging in ways that are passed on to future generations. Women are biologically and hormonally advantaged when it comes to aging, but are more susceptible to lifestyle risks in a way that can be inherited by their offspring. This important finding suggests that women play an important role as gatekeepers of health and longevity.
The Nobel prize winning discovery of telomeres has provided a biological marker of our longevity. Telomeres are protective caps on the ends of our chromosomes that shorten as we age and set a finite limit to our lifespan. Telomerase is a housekeeping enzyme that functions to preserve telomeres. Genetic and lifestyle risks, including stress can block telomerase and shorten telomeres, leading to accelerated cellular aging. While women are born with longer telomeres, they are more susceptible to the effects of lifestyle when it comes to telomeres and aging. Chronically stressed women who were caregiving to chronically ill children were found to have the shortest telomeres of any studied group. In these women, stress reducing mindfulness practices proved to be
effective in preventing telomere shortening and buffering their stress related aging.
Hormones are another important factor in the gender gap of aging. Menopause marks an aging milestone for women; the end to her reproductive lifespan. The rapid decline of estrogen at menopause accounts for advanced aging in midlife. Women age three times faster between 40 and 50 years than any other decade. With the decline in estrogen and other vital hormones, disease risk increases as do markers of epigenetic aging. So it is a complex web of factors that shape our longevity. 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 in controlling the health and longevity of their family tree.
Our DNA is not our destiny. Our health and longevity can be shaped by our lifestyle and life choices. Women are highly influenced through epigenetics by lifestyle factors in a way that can affect the health of their unborn children. Harnessing leading science, we can overcome genetic risks to take charge of our aging and live our best life.
Dr. Jennifer Pearlman is a medical doctor and Women’s health expert. She is owner and Medical Director of PearlMD Rejuvenation, a women’s health and beauty clinic in Toronto.