How What You’re Thinking Right Now Is Aging Your Body

Updated: Mar. 16, 2022

You know about the power of positive thinking, but did you know that negative thoughts are powerful as well?

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Dealing with depression is fundamental to living a satisfying life, and that’s reason enough to pursue mood-boosting solutions. But a recent study provides even more motivation: Researchers have found that negative thoughts can lead to premature cell death—and that equals aging. How does that happen? The lifespan of a cell is dictated in part by a cellular structure called a telomere, which protects genetic data and helps cells divide. Each time a cell divides, however, the telomere shortens; eventually it becomes too short and the cell dies. In an analysis of studies involving more than 7,000 people, researchers discovered that telomeres were significantly shorter in people suffering from depression compared to their happier counterparts.



Taming your response to the person who just cut you off in traffic or the telemarketer who just interrupted dinner isn’t easy. In fact, it’s kind of fun to imagine horrible payback for their transgressions. (Need practice with patience? Try these eight tricks for maintaining your cool.) But avoiding hostility will add years to your life, suggests research from the University College London in the U.K. Again, telomeres are responsible: Hostile thoughts seem to shorten these cellular structures, leading to premature aging of cells—and you.

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Doubting and mistrusting people’s motives, being skeptical of any new idea—is that an inevitable part of aging? It doesn’t have to be—and letting cynicism get the best of you will shorten the amount of your twilight years. A study published this year in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine found that cynical men had a much higher risk of heart attack and stroke compared to less skeptical guys. The combination of cynicism and hostility is a double whammy that negatively impacts your telomeres. Those who have high levels of cynical hostility will suffer from depression, have higher levels of cardiovascular disease, metabolic disease, and die at younger ages.



Expecting the worst is really just the worst—for those around you and for your own health. (Change your outlook by learning the ten things optimistic people do everyday.) In research from 2014, investigators measured pessimism and telomere length in 490 men. Sure enough, the more pessimistic the man, the shorter his telomeres. In another study on pessimism and telomere length, researchers found that pessimism in both men and women was linked to poor health and shorter telomeres; when pessimists developed cancer or heart disease, the sickness progressed faster ending in an earlier death.

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Getting stuck in a rut is different from reflection: If you’re analyzing a situation that went sour to find a better response—that’s reflection, and it’s healthy. If you’re analyzing that same situation over and over, and it happened 14 years ago, that’s rumination and it’s linked to anxiety and depression, according to research. That miserable and purposeless agonizing leads to high levels of the stress hormone cortisol and elevated heart rate, which along with depression can shorten telomeres.



Try not to dwell on it, but yes—burying your feelings will shorten your telomeres. A small study suggests that suppressing thoughts and negative emotions can also shorten telomeres. So how do you navigate the territory between avoiding negativity and embracing your bad feelings? Check out some of the advice from these self-help books for people who can’t stand self-help books.


Mind wandering

Daydreaming seems harmless enough, but according to at least one small study, mind wandering signals a lack of engagement with your life and the task in front of you. It’s a measure of dissatisfaction, and weirdly it seems to be linked to shorter telomeres and premature aging.


Dealing with negative thinking

You can start simple: Research suggests that yoga, meditation, and regular trips to the gym can do wonders for your outlook. You can also try to identify and tackle your particular negative thought patterns and take steps to addressing them—or get help solving them by signing up for therapy.