Make friends with your telomeres
Make friends with your telomeres
If you’re like me, you prefer a bit of science behind the recommendations on diet, exercise and other wellness activities that abound in the popular press.
Certainly, if you’re going to try one (or a few) you want to know that it’s going to deliver the claimed results.
So when I come across something that I think stands up to the ‘robust evidence’ test, I think it’s worth sharing. Consequently, we’re diving into the science behind telomeres and why they’re key to ageing well (as opposed to ageing sick).
This should be of special interest to all those in their ‘middle years’ – close enough to care about older age and young enough to do something about it!
What are telomeres?
As the image above perhaps suggests, telomeres have something to do with your DNA.
To be precise, they’re sections of DNA that form a protective cap on the end of your chromosomes to prevent damage. Long telomeres are good, shortened telomeres are bad: they cease to have the same protective effect, our cells can’t rejuvenate and they stop functioning in the right way.
Sadly, all telomeres wear down with age, and this is why we’re more at risk of cardiovascular illness, diabetes, dementia, cancer and a weakened immune system as we get older.
Telomere decline has been described as a ‘chromosomal clock’ – effectively counting down the years our cells can continue to function normally. Tick tock…
The good news
We can influence the rate at which our telomeres deteriorate, and to some degree we can reverse the damage. There are no promises of eternal life from the science just yet – only the potential to increase the number of healthy, high-quality years we enjoy.
So – what are the key research findings and lifestyle changes to keep our telomeres long?
Do it for your telomeres!
Reduce stress! We’ve been hearing this for a long time, but now, with the science of telomeres, we have a deeper understanding of the physiological mechanisms at play.
In one study, women who reported a high level of perceived stress were shown to have shorter telomeres equivalent to one decade of additional ageing compared to their low-stress counterparts. That’s got to be a good reason to aim to avoid stressful situations and to find ways to successfully reduce stress when it occurs.
Lose weight and eat healthily. This is also not news, but the chromosomal connections are. Obese adults have shorter telomeres than normal weight range adults. People who eat a carotenoid-rich diet (full of brightly coloured fruits and vegetables) have longer telomeres. And possibly most importantly… switching to a plant-based diet has been shown to increase telomere length, suggesting some reversal effects.
To keep physically and mentally healthy as long as possible, we have to keep the kilos off and swap vegetables for meat whenever we can.
Maintain social connections. In older people especially, having greater levels of social support is associated with longer telomeres, and animal studies have shown that social isolation is associated with shorter telomeres.
So if you don’t want to go the same way as the African Grey Parrots studied, then you need companions (and if you happen to be a keeper of solo captive birds, they need a friend).
Exercise, d’uh! People who do moderate exercise (3 x 45 mins aerobic activity per week) and those who do a range of different kinds of exercise have significantly longer telomeres than those who have sedentary lifestyles.
At the high end, one study showed adults doing 30 mins of jogging 5-7 times per week had telomeres that were “9 years younger” than people with a sedentary lifestyle.
Meditate. There are emerging studies that show engaging in a meditation practice over some years is associated with longer telomeres (sorry, you can’t expect a result after a few sessions!).
Sleep (my favourite). Telomeres are shorter in adults who get less than 7 hours sleep per night – and shortening telomeres have even been discovered in 9-year-old kids who get sub-optimal sleep. You need sleep to keep your DNA healthy.
Reduce exposure to pollution. A 2018 study has shown that prenatal exposure to air pollution from nearby coal burning resulted in shorter telomeres in the cord blood of newborn infants. That’s one for the coal lobby to take notice of. Shortened telomeres have also been found in kids living in areas high in traffic-related air pollution.
It’s going to need a longitudinal study to show what the impacts are on the ageing process for kids exposed to pollution, but from what we know already about the links between telomere length and healthy ageing, I’d say it’s worth reducing our exposure in whatever ways possible.
You can have your telomeres measured and your biological age worked out. You can even get a home testing kit. But be aware that the reliability of these tests has been brought into question.
And for those of us who like a ‘quick fix’, there is a drug available which claims to slow down the rate of decline and even repair telomeres. One peer-reviewed research study has shown significant lengthening of telomeres after a year of taking it. Promising, perhaps… but I think I’d like to know more about the side effects and efficacy before I place an order!
I don’t mind the prospect of growing older, but I do mind the prospect of getting sick and old. Just researching this article has given me a motivation boost to lose a bit of weight and build up my colourful veg eating. Think of your telomeres today!
Larry A. Tucker. Physical activity and telomere length in U.S. men and women: An NHANES investigation. Preventive Medicine, 2017; 100: 145
Epel et al. Accelerated telomere shortening in response to life stress
PNAS December 7, 2004. 101 (49) 17312-17315
Perera et al. Shorter telomere length in cord blood associated with prenatal air pollution exposure: Benefits of intervention. Environ Int. 2018 Apr;113:335-340.
McCartney. Would you like your telomeres tested?
BMJ 2012; 344 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e681
Get our guide to better wellbeing
Download our Collection of Wellbeing Insights – an eBook full of our favourite and most practical tips and strategies you can start using today.