Lisa was increasingly tired and worn out from trying to keep up with her busy children and a hectic work schedule. She couldn’t resist eating sugary foods and collapsed into being a “couch potato” when she got home after sitting at her desk for hours at a time. Stress ruled her life, and she had begun to look and feel old. At only 39, Lisa was aging far too quickly.
Anna, an active woman in her 50s, had a positive attitude about her life. Resilient and relatively calm , she ate healthfully, took targeted supplements consistently, and enjoyed a lifestyle that reflected a youthful vitality. In appearance, outlook, and health, Anna seemed like a much younger woman.
What can account for the difference between these two women?
Clearly, lifestyle and mindset elements were at work. But another, more fundamental reason Lisa and Anna were aging so differently may lie in their telomeres, the focus of new research that has come to the forefront in scientific literature and books.
Telo-what? Telomeres are among your cells’ smallest structures. Like the plastic caps that prevent your shoelaces from unraveling, telomeres protect the ends of chromosomes and keep them separated from one another in the DNA sequence. Every cell in your body has 23 pairs of chromosomes, for a total of 46. And each one of them has a telomere at both ends—92 of these tiny caps per cell in all—helping to contain your cells’ DNA, the blueprint for continuing life.
Telomeres do their most important work during cell division, when they buffer genetic DNA. Without the telomeres to seal off their ends, chromosomes can easily become unraveled, fuse with others, or mutate. Protecting their “blueprint” means that telomeres directly influence how healthy each newly produced body cell—muscle, skin, blood, every type—will be.
If Lisa and Anna were able to compare their telomeres, we just might see that Anna’s are long and robust while Lisa’s are shorter or otherwise compromised.
The importance of telomeres represents a genetic discovery not widely recognized until…
In October 2009, the Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to three researchers for their discovery of “how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.”
Telomeres themselves were not a new discovery at that time. But little was known about the function of the structures until the Nobel spotlight fell on the group who identified telomerase, the building block of telomeres. This recognition has since ignited a revolutionary interest in telomere research that has caught on in labs all over the world.
Great, now we know more about the function telomeres serve. But what will get your attention is that telomeres…
…have turned out to be a yardstick for measuring human aging at the cellular level. You might have the chronological age of 55. If you have robust telomeres, though, your biological age—that is, how old your cells appear to be and how well they work—could be closer to 40. Foreshortened telomeres, on the other hand, might age you to 65 or even older.
Each time a cell divides, the telomere shortens. That means as we get older and our cells have experienced more and more divisions, some shrinkage of the telomeres is natural. But telomeres also regulate how many times an individual cell can divide. Once a telomere shrinks beyond a certain level, it can no longer adequately protect the genes inside the chromosome. The cell can no longer divide, and it dies.
Does that mean if your telomeres are too short…
Scientists know that telomere length can be a predictor of disease risk and progression and even early death. Telomere shortness has been linked to chronic conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, lung diseases, impaired immune function, and certain cancers.
But the reverse is also true: People with longer telomeres have more years of healthy life ahead. Since most cells can divide only a certain number of times—and they grow older each time they do so—researchers are excited about the possibility of preserving health by discovering how to slow down or even stop the telomere shortening process.
And here’s even better news: YOU can influence whether your telomeres shorten early, or whether they’re going to stay supported and healthy. According to doctors Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel in their book The Telomere Effect—which I recommend!—you can take actions today to slow down the aging process and protect yourself from disease and premature aging.
I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t like to prolong their “healthspan,” Blackburn and Epel’s term for our years of good health. Studies suggest that smart self-care can minimize the destructive power of stress on your telomeres, as well as boost your telomerase, the enzyme responsible for making and replenishing telomeres.
- Manage stress better. Some types of stress, such as extreme caregiving and job burnout, are harmful to telomeres. Adopting a more positive approach can help you change your response to these stressors. For example, rather than perceive a stressor as a threat, you might think of it as a challenge. Meditation and other stress-relief techniques help as well.
- While we’re on the subject of stress: Avoid social stressors. Strengthen relationships and support systems in your life, too. Your neighborhood, community, and relationships can foster a sense of safety that will shape your telomere health.
- Stay active to prevent inflammation. Moderate cardio or interval training seem to be best for rebuilding telomeres, and note, any increase in aerobic fitness increases telomerase activity. That protects telomeres from shortening.
- Watch what—and how—you eat. Strict dieting takes a toll on our bodies and doesn’t benefit telomere length, while yo-yo dieting seems to have some harmful results. Rather than a “diet,” think in terms of food planning. Make a habit of being conscious of what you eat in order to reduce sugar and processed foods, reduce belly fat, and control insulin sensitivity.
- Respect the restorative power of sleep. Aim for quality, regularity, and rhythm. At least 7 hours of sleep per day helps to control hunger and appetite (see above!), and removing electronic screens from the bedroom can improve quality of rest.
- Don’t feed the inflammation, which appears to harm telomeres. Instead, “eat the rainbow” by aiming for a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables and omega-3 fatty acids as found in salmon and tuna—and include nuts, leafy vegetables, flaxseed and its oil, and green tea in your menus.
- Have your doctor check your vitamin D level. If it’s low, you may need to supplement, in addition to adding a multivitamin , folate, C, and E. All of these nutrients seem to be associated with longer telomeres.
- Reduce toxic exposures to chemicals. Read labels on foods, personal care items, and housecleaning products, and choose “natural” or “organic” whenever possible.
The future of telomere research…
Stay tuned to the expanding field of telomere research (I know I will!). We’re sure to learn more about what we can do to enjoy not just longer lives, but more years of truly healthy, vibrant, and satisfying states of wellbeing. Who knows—new discoveries may even turn back the clock on aging. Sign me up!
P.S. …In fact, I DID sign up! I have taken a special blood test to measure the health of my telomeres. It will take about a month before I get my results back. This is a new type of testing and rather pricey, but I’m excited to “put myself out there” to learn more. If you’re interested in trying it too, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will happily share information about this new testing.
Your Takeaway: People with longer telomeres have more years of healthy life. YOU hold much of the power to influence whether your telomeres are going to shorten early or later.