Nobel Laureate and Author Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn

The Nobel prize-winning scientist discusses her new book The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer and how her discovery of the molecular nature of telomeres can turn back the clock on aging cells.

Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 alongside two colleagues for their discovery of telomerase and telomeres' role in the aging process. She is currently president of the Salk Institute. Blackburn was elected president of the American Association for Cancer Research and is a recipient of the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, among many other awards. In 2007, she was named one of TIME magazine's 100 most influential people. Her current book, The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer was released on January 3, 2017.  


Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.

Tonight, first a conversation with Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn about her groundbreaking research that explains the science of aging.

Then director Danny Boyle joins us to talk about the sequel to his seminal indie film, “Trainspotting”. It’s rolling into U.S. theaters this weekend.

We’re glad you’ve joined us. Those conversations in just a moment.

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Tavis: Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn is a Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist who discovered one of the greatest secrets: how to slow down the aging process. Oh, now I got your attention, don’t I [laugh]? The new book is called “The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer”. Dr. Blackburn, an honor to have you on this program.

Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: I did pronounce it correct? Telomere?

Blackburn: Perfect, perfect.

Tavis: Tell me what a telomere is. Break it down for me.

Blackburn: Okay. Well, look at your shoes. You’ve got shoelaces.

Tavis: I’ve got shoelaces, okay.

Blackburn: Little tips at the ends of the shoelaces protect them from fraying away.

Tavis: Oh, the little plastic things.

Blackburn: The little plastic things there.

Tavis: On the tip of my shoelace. I’m looking at it right now.

Blackburn: Yeah, and so if we…

Tavis: That’s not a telomere, though.

Blackburn: Well, you could call it. It’s like a telomere. If you think of a shoelace as being your chromosomes, a chromosome carries lots of genetic information, and the little tips of the chromosomes have to be protected, and that’s what’s the telomeres. There are just literally, you know, trillions of cells that we have.

There’s lots and lots of little chromosomes, but think of them as all being just lots of little tiny shoelaces whose tips need to be protected. And if they’re not, then the genetic material becomes unprotected and basically your cells won’t renew you throughout life properly if their telomeres have worn down.

So our telomeres sort of wear down slowly as we get older through our decades of life. And when they do, when they’ve gone too, when they’ve worn too far, then the cells no longer can replenish our tissues throughout our bodies.

So the thing is that the wearing down doesn’t just happen at a rate that is the same for everybody and what the book is about is how when that rate can be slowed, that helps to slow down your aging in this kind of way that relates to not being able to replenish tissue throughout your body.

Tavis: How much control — I know the answer, but I’m going to ask it anyway because I want to advance the conversation. How much control then — I only know this from reading your book. What agency do we have in controlling how fast or how slow those telomeres…

Blackburn: We have a surprising amount and it begins with things that we know really from all sorts of other things are good for helping us stay healthy. That’s, you know, all the things that we’ve known about, exercising, getting good sleep and having good kind of, you know, fairly nutritious food.

But what’s really interesting is how much your state of mind affects your whole physiology. And we can see that read out in how much your telomeres wear down based on how well you can cope with chronic stresses and, conversely, how bad the stresses are. So we can control quite a lot of that.

So my coworker, Elissa Epel, and I became co-authors and she is a psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco where I was before I became president of the Salk Institute about a year ago.

So we realized there was so much useful information that had come from so many studies in humans and they weren’t in one place. There are all sorts of different places that they’ve been published and talked about.

So we thought let’s put them all together and use that information from how much the telomeres wear down which we know has serious consequences for how much we’re going to age and become susceptible to diseases of aging. Let’s put that information in one place and turn it into something that’s usable because it’s not telling people to do ridiculous, impossible things.

It’s saying, look, we understand what sorts of ways people can change that will stick. They won’t just be, you know, five weeks of great resolution to go to the gym and then, you know, you forget. It’s like how do you tweak things so that you can do a lasting set of useful changes that we know from the research really does help maintain your telomere health?

Tavis: Are there degrees or gradations to telomere health based on things like race, gender, etc.?

Blackburn: There are some biological ones. But the really important ones we found were things to do with not just our own personal habits, but things that were now of real consequence of what is happening in society.

So we found that the worse a person experienced, in themselves experienced, discrimination, the worse that they experienced bullying, violence, if they were children, the shorter, the more worn down were their telomeres. So we could quantify these things in a way that, you know, it’s not subjective. It’s like, yeah, we’re actually seeing.

This is always done with statistics, groups of people, carefully correcting for things that might have been confusing the answers. Yes, so real experiences of people and, conversely, how they are able to cope, that turns out to be a real thing and we have control not only as individuals, but I think society has some decisions that are made that we can say we see real effects on telomere maintenance.

Tavis: See, with that last comment, you’re setting me up for a joke about Trump working my telomeres. But I’m going to leave that alone, though [laugh]. There’s a joke in there about Trump just wearing down my telomeres.

Blackburn: There would be a joke if it wasn’t such a serious thing, and actually we seriously think that that kind of social stressors which is the chronic, not knowing what’s predictable, not having control of the situations, having things where there aren’t resources to cope, those are the sorts of things that we have to look very serious at social policies and say, look, these things we know have miserable effect on telomere maintenance. So, sadly, we can only joke. We laugh not to cry, right?

But, you know, that’s an interesting and very important thing, and it came out of the research in looking at humans and just saying how much do the telomeres wear down? I didn’t tell you why it’s serious why telomeres wear down. Because the more they wear down, the more people are statistically set up as being at risk for the major things that affect us as we get older.

There are things like cardiovascular, the various cancers, cardiovascular disease, even diabetes, even some of the dementias. We see that the wearing down of telomeres plays into those risks. So these have big consequences for, you know, health of our societies as well as individuals and families, right?

Tavis: I am not nor will I ever be like you, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, but I have been Black my whole life. I know a little bit about that. It would just seem to me, all jokes aside, it would just seem to me that if these telomeres dying off and not replenishing themselves has to do with aging and dying, then Black folk, our telomeres must really be under a lot of stress.

Blackburn: When we look at the rates, the absolute lengths vary from one ethnic group to another. But the rates are falling.

We do see evidence of people who feel they are under — and when I say feel, it’s real because you can see this very concrete measure of the telomere wearing down phenomenon happening in proportion to peoples’ experiences of such things as, for example, very poor neighborhood quality where people feel unsafe in the long-term way. By the way, short-term stressors are not a big problem, I’m happy to say, so you can be stressed…

Tavis: Long-term, yeah, yeah.

Blackburn: It’s the ones where it’s long-term and people feel…

Tavis: See, the reason that’s important to me is because so often when people of color, when poor people, when people in those neighborhoods you referenced, when they say this, nobody hears them. When they say it, people say, “Get over it.” When they say it, everybody has a hard life. Nobody’s born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

I hear these mantras all the time when everyday people say this. But when a Nobel Prize-winning scientist like yourself says it, oh, no, it really does damage your telomeres, the conversation takes on more seriousness.

Blackburn: I think it’s very serious. And in the book, what we try and do is give people at least sort of empowerment to say, look, here are the things you can do. You know, we can’t fix stressors in life. We can’t all change a lot of things right away.

You know, we can’t instantly change society and so on, but thee are things we can do at least that are giving us the coping tools. Particularly, my co-author, Elissa Epel, that’s really her expertise part. So this came together so much because we said, look here, all these effects that we see and what can you do about it?

So the book is really about, you know, what can you do in terms of having some empowerment to make a difference at least for your own maintenance of your health. But that in turn turns out, you know, that can help others as well.

Tavis: Well, there’s your new word for the day: telomere [laugh]. The book is called “The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer”. Dr. Blackburn, Ph.D., Nobel Prize-winner. An honor to have you on this program.

Blackburn: Really glad to be on. Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: Thank you so much. Up next, director Danny Boyle, “Trainspotting 2”. Stay with us.

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Last modified: March 16, 2017 at 2:27 pm