The Smallest of things: Telomeres

Audio version of The Smallest of Things: Telomeres

If you’ve ever read, seen, or observed your children watch “Horton Hears a Who,” then you’ve experienced some level of empathy with the “tiniest of the smallest” doing their best to be noticed. Horton’s stressful and heroic search for a single, flowery puff upon which rested all of Whoville is the perfect metaphor for the power of small things, and just how important they can be. And while JoJo’s last-ditch effort of a well-placed “YOPP” led to the rescue of that tiny population, Horton no-doubt lost some life through the process of his gut-wrenching rescue.

Or, did he? Elephants are known to live longer than other large animals on our planet. And if elephant DNA construction is similar to human linear chromosomes, then…maybe he was RESILIENT. Maybe he lived just as long, or even longer than his peers.

So what is it about humans such that something a thousand times smaller than Whoville comes into play with life expectancy? Why is it that Horton might have reversed the stress of his hunt? Todays “Smallest Thing” I want to share with you is about “telomeres.” Telomeres are “caps on the ends of chromosomes, protecting them much as plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces keep the laces from fraying (Singer, 2011).” Stacy Lu explains: “Each time a cell divides, it loses a bit of its telomeres. An enzyme called telomerase can replenish it, but chronic stress and cortisol exposure decrease your supply. When the telomere is too diminished, the cell often dies or becomes pro-inflammatory. This sets the aging process in motion, along with associated health risks (October, 2014).”

Hundreds of studies have been conducted on people and even babies that measured the length of their telomeres. Those who have been exposed to profound stressors (such as neglect, prolonged or chronic trauma, or other physical or emotional strains) have shorter telomeres.

This article is about the Smallest of Things yet the body of research here is gigantic. Therefore, I’m going to boil it down into very simple summaries knowing there are citations to back up all these declarations:

  1. A hostile environment can shorten telomeres;
  2. A pandemic, a horrible car crash, cancer or other chronic disease, or being in a war can shorten telomeres; and,
  3. An unhealthy committed relationship or marriage can, in fact, shorten telomeres.

Yes, you read that right. The tiniest things in your body can shorten because you and your life partner struggle continually in verbal or non-verbal battles.

But true to my word, the summary of research also shows that the tiniest things in your body can, with appropriate social/behavioral interventions, actually grow back. How can you grow your “life essence” back? How can you help your spouse live longer?

  1. Notice them and validate what you noticed (provide balm);
  2. Make one better choice for healthy food you’re preparing out of love for them (provide good nutrition);
  3. Grab their hand, rise from your respective recliners or sofas, and move together (provide exercise);
  4. Find humor in the tiniest things and share deeply experienced belly laughter together (provide happiness).

This list could go into the millions. But the Smallest of Things approach here is: whatever is pure, kind, thoughtful, healthy and nutritious, energizing and active, soothing, nurturing, supporting, and…LOVING…those things will grow telomeres.

Those things grow life.

Those things are found in the tiniest of choices of every moment of every day with the person you love within a community that’s supportive. True story: virtual war on the battlefield can affect you in many of the same ways relational war in your home can.

So, love your spouse or partner (or kids or family) by simply making the tiniest choices to turn things around. Eventually erosion stops, stability is found, then days, months, or even YEARS OF LIFE can and will come because of single words or gestures across every day of your lives.

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