Designer Genes: How to live longer & healthier

Scientists can tweak our genes to help cut out disease and help us live longer. They've also found out what ages some people faster than others. That prompted us to figure out what you can do right now, to not only live longer, but truly enjoy your golden years.

"Science is moving faster than it has ever moved before," exclaims Jamie Metzl, author of the eye-opening book "Hacking Darwin".  Researchers are learning more and more about telomeres and how they are truly the key to aging.  Telomeres protect the end of our chromosomes.  As we get older, telomeres shorten. As they get shorter, our cells breaks down, which ages us and can even cause disease.  Therefore, researchers say the key to healthy living is long, healthy telomeres. Finally, we're figuring out why people age at a different pace. They're studying this at a special center at Baylor College of Medicine called the Huffington Center on Aging. 

Maria Pesantev gave us a tour of the state-of-the-art facility.

"This is one of the floors that has four labs, and all of them are working on basic science research.  This lab works on telomere research and we have one that works genetics testing," explains Pesantev. 

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We also spoke with Dr. Aimee Garcia, in the Geriatrics department of Baylor College of Medicine.  She says there are a lot of factors to longevity in life, and genetics play a large role.

"One of the main factors is definitely genetics.  If you look at someone's family history and barring complications like a heart attack or get hit by a car, other than that - if your parents lived to an old age, your grandparents lived to an old age, the likelihood is that you're going to live to an older age," explains Dr. Garcia.

Let's face it, you can't pick your parents and it isn't easy to change your genes, so let's concentrate on what you can do.  Researchers have learned at least six ways to keep your telomeres longer.  The thought is - doing that slows down your aging process at the DNA level.

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We'll start with maintaining a healthy weight, which also means healthy eating! To keep those telomeres stretched-out means cutting-out as much processed food as you can. Yes, that's all that convenient food that comes in a package. Dr. Garcia suggests you go lightly on salt and fat. Go heavy on fruits and vegetables, making it a goal to eat five different colors every day.

We've heard that exercise is good for you.  Now researchers know exactly how much exercise you need to extend your life.

"If you're just sitting in front of your computer or in front of your television and you're doing nothing, and you can combine two or three hours of exercise a week, which is really very little, then you get two years (of extra healthy life). If you exercise an hour a day, you get five more years of a healthy lifespan. And that's not just a number of five more years of healthy life - it's being able to see your grandkids graduate from college, it's having all these great experiences that that everybody wants," explains Metzl.

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The Houstonians we talked with were thrilled to hear this news and all agreed they'd be willing to exercise more.  "I did not know that stat!  That's wonderful news. I think it's great to have that recommendation because it gets people out and about and being active," says one woman.  "If I could have five healthy years, I'd hang out with my kids and hopefully grandkids!  If you put in the work now, you'll have delayed gratification and I think that'd be a great thing to do," exclaims a local man of young children.

Smoking anything and drinking a lot of alcohol both shorten your telomeres, so to lengthen them, it would be a good idea to stop.

"Having a drink is no big deal, but if you're having an excessive amount of alcohol or smoking, it's definitely going to impact your longevity," states Dr. Garcia.

Another key to longevity is learning how to manage chronic stress. A part of that is making sure you're connected to others.

"Engage in building your communities around you, have a purpose, whether it's through your local church or synagogue or mosque. All those things are really great, and they're not expensive, they're free," smiles Metzl.  

Last, but not least, pets are incredibly good for your health.

"There have been clinical studies that show having pets, having a connection with animals lowers blood pressure and improves their overall mood.  For patients with dementia - it can help calm them, so having that connection with another living being definitely improves overall quality of life and longevity," says Dr. Garcia.

To recap, the best way to lead a healthier and longer life is with these steps:  eat healthy, exercise, stop smoking, drink alcohol moderately, manage chronic stress, have a purpose, and enjoy your pets.