In fairness, her's was a global Nobel; although we proudly acknowledge the first Australian woman Nobel Laureate along with 11 men in science, two in literature and one in economics. Many of these were/are international citizens as well. (en.wikipedia.org)
On a recent visit to Australia, Dr Blackburn was at the University of South Australia to give the Hawke Lecture, and was interviewed by Robyn Williams on The Science Show on ABC Radio National. (www.abc.net.au)
Dr Blackburn's work involves studying the fundamental biochemical processes deep inside the cell. She works on one aspect of chromosomes (see ref to DNA part 1 ). What she and her team have found, over many years, is that as the cells age and the whole organism ages, the protective ends of the chromosomes (called 'telomeres') get worn away and this may lead to a variety of degenerative diseases.
In the interview, she herself explains what telomeres are better than I can:
"…so the chromosomes are made of millions and millions of building blocks of DNA arranged in certain sequences that give you information that reads out the genetic information. And so the telomeres, they are made of DNA, but now …. it's just a little pattern of building blocks which makes a certain shape and that makes a scaffold that protective proteins come and make a sheath on. And so that pattern has to be repeated enough that you get…they're just happens to be a minimum size that works, and so the pattern has to be repeated enough times that you get a good enough robust sheath at the ends of both of the ends of the chromosomes, that that is protective. Because the cells are full of things that are always trying to attack these ends, for complicated reasons that cells have."
It is the esoteric biochemistry of the insides or our cells that has won her and her team the Nobel Prize. But she hasn't stopped, and the work continues to look at the broader implications of this biochemistry in peoples' lives. She revealed that other researchers have found that particular types of stress seem to shorten our telomeres: this process is not only a function of ageing.
She calls it 'threat stress' ; the type of stress where people feel helpless and hopeless for an extended period of time. In comparison, a moderate amount of 'challenge stress' that spurs us on to do something positive, seems to be good for us and our telomeres.
She commented that she has seen the same effect in more than one study, some of which have shown that people who become pessimistic and who have little resilience to their situation are more likely to have shortened telomeres in the insides of the nuclei of their cells. Although she admitted she was speculating, she is basing her speculation on scientific results, and she commented that the current 'common sense' approaches to reducing stress, such as exercise, apparently sometimes reverse these effects.
In one of these recent pilot studies, the researchers followed men who had been diagnosed with early-stage, treatable prostate cancer. "Ten of the patients embarked on lifestyle changes that included: a plant-based diet (high in fruits, vegetables and unrefined grains, and low in fat and refined carbohydrates); moderate exercise (walking 30 minutes a day, six days a week); stress reduction (gentle yoga-based stretching, breathing, meditation). They also participated in weekly group support.
They were compared to the other 25 study participants who were not asked to make major lifestyle changes."
The results showed that the group who participated in the stress-reducing lifestyle changes had significantly longer telomeres (on average) than the control group, who actually reduced the length of their telomeres. (www.sciencedaily.com)
Now, neither Dr Blackburn nor the authors of this paper claim that anything is 'proven' yet; this is a very small study, but it is not the only one. It does show the ongoing and steady process of science, and indicates that further studies are worthwhile, to see if this hypothesis turns out to hold water, or not.
In the meantime, there seems to be good bichemical reasons to follow the advice of your Grandma and your doctor – sensible diet, moderate exercise and some fun and relaxation - help to improve the quality of our life as we get older, and may actually alter some very tiny, esoteric, biochemical effects deep within the cell. These lifestyle changes have been shown to improve our health anyway, and make us feel better for whatever lifespan we are granted.
The Bible also advocates positive mental attitudes, as in Proverbs 10 verse 27 "The fear of the Lord prolongs life, but the years of the wicked will be short."
Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children.
Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed at www.pressserviceinternational.org/mark-tronson.html