Telomeres: What You Need to Know to Prevent Premature Aging and Disease

Have You Heard of Telomeres?

telomeresSo, why do you need to know about telomeres? Maybe you’ve heard the word floating around in connection with aging or illness, but not sure exactly what it means for you and your body.

DNA Strands Without Telomeres Become Damaged

Telomeres are the ‘caps’ at the end of each strand of DNA that protect our chromosomes; they are often likened to the plastic caps at the ends of shoelaces that prevent fraying and disintegration. Like shoelaces without their plastic caps, DNA strands without telomeres will become damaged and incapable of doing their job.

Throughout our lives, our cells are replenished by copying themselves over and over again; depending on the type of cell, this can happen quite frequently (every couple of years), as with the skin, or less frequently, as with the brain. Every time our cells are replicated, our telomeres become shorter.

Telomere Length is Important to Our Health

So, why is telomere length important to our health? Well, a definite link has been discovered between shortened telomere length and premature aging; the more times your cells copy themselves, the shorter the telomeres, and the faster you age. And shortened telomeres put you at a greater risk of developing diseases such as Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and Parkinson’s. This is why, by and large, telomeres are heralded as ‘the key’ to healthy aging.

But that’s not the end of the telomere story! Just to throw a wrench in the works, too-long telomeres have also been associated with certain cancers, and, as we know, cancer also presents a serious risk for premature aging and, you guessed it, death. So, we want some telomeres to stay long, while others we want to keep short.

Your Want Telomeres Long, But Not Too Long

In sum, you want your telomeres long, but not too long. It’s like in the story of Goldilocks: we don’t want too much, and we don’t want too little; we want just enough. So, how do we achieve this miraculous bell-curve, prevent premature cell aging, and not get cancer?

It’s actually a lot easier than you might believe (and that I probably led you to believe—sorry). Many of the practices that have been shown to keep your telomeres happy and healthy have been shown to also be anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidative, and overall, just good for you! And of the recommendations that I discuss below, you’re likely already doing at least a few of them!

  1. Chill for best results

You know how sometimes someone will look at a person, and guess that they’ve “lived a hard life”? Of course, we usually keep this observation to ourselves (rudeness has also been associated with a shortened life span). But the untimely wrinkles and look of perpetual exhaustion that we see on a person’s face: those are shortened telomeres at work. Stress and anxiety will prematurely shorten the telomeres in your skin, making you look that much older that much faster.

Of course, don’t go stressing about the stress you’ve experienced in the past; if you have lived a hard life, and have been stressed and anxious throughout, there’s not much you can do about it now. Even if you presently find yourself in a difficult living situation, you don’t have to roll over and let the stress take its toll on your precious telomeres. The trick is to meet life’s challenges with equanimity and calm.

So, how do you achieve this? As discussed in my previous article, a meditative practice can do wonders for your overall sense of well-being and calm. Or, if you’re not quite ready for meditation, just do something that relieves stress: exercise, read a good book, talk to someone you love and trust, hug a dog, paint, dance, do some yoga (seriously, have you ever seen a yoga instructor who wasn’t youthful and glowing?). Your telomeres will thank you!

2) Check your alcohol consumption

This is a tough one for many people who want to relax, because alcohol can have something of a sedative effect. That being said, alcohol consumption has been shown to lead to shortened telomeres, and earlier onset of age-related diseases, including cancer. One study performed on nearly 200 convicted drunk drivers and alcohol-abusers (defined as consuming >4 units of alcohol a day or >40 grams) found that compared to the 257-person control group (of varying alcohol consumption), the telomere length of the abusers was nearly half of the control group. Not much difference in telomere length was reported between light alcohol-consumers (0-1 units a day) and moderate consumers (2-4 units a day).

So, what does this mean? While abstinence from alcohol is ideal, for many, that is simply not realistic. You might want to more seriously consider abstinence from alcohol, however, if you are at an increased risk of developing cancer, due either to family history, other biological factors, or lifestyle (such as smoking).

3) Exercise right

Studies also show a convincing positive link between exercise and telomere length. While everyone knows that exercise is good for you in multiple areas of life, studies have shown that telomere length is most positively affected by specific exercise forms and intensities. For example, one study done over a course of six months found that when older, sedentary, and overweight individuals engaged in a low-intensity exercise program, their blood-cell telomeres lengthened significantly. The researchers concluded that telomere lengthening—and general health improvement—correlated significantly with reduced sitting time.

What exercise intensity is ideal for telomere length? Well, findings are slightly controversial in this area, but one study found that telomere length was most positively correlated with moderate-intensity exercise—as opposed to light or no exercise, or excessive exercise. You might be confused by how to measure your own exercise intensity; well, one of the benefits of working with a personal trainer is that they can help you to locate your own optimal exercise intensity, through measuring heart-rate and lung capacity. You can click here for more information on working with one of Infofit’s elite personal trainers–or becoming a fitness professional yourself!

4) Watch your weight

Multiple studies have demonstrated that overweight and obese people tend to have shorter telomere length; thus, their cells age faster and they are at a greater risk for developing age-related diseases. People with normal BMI’s, on the other hand, tend to have longer telomeres and age more slowly.

And what is perhaps the most essential element for fat loss? Nutrition.

5) Better food = better telomeres = better aging

Nutrition is absolutely essential for ideal telomerase activity. Not only does your food affect your weight (specifically, your adiposity and BMI), which will affect your telomeres, but it will also influence your levels of inflammation and oxidative stress. And the things that typically help to lower your inflammation will also prevent premature aging and disease—weird how that works, right?

So, what are some foods that can improve your telomeres? And which foods will degrade them?

One fascinating study found that curcumin, the compound found in turmeric, is effective in inhibiting the growth of tumour telomeres, while also promoting the growth of telomeres in healthy cells.

Other foods that have demonstrated anti-inflammatory effects and which promote telomere health are green tea and vegetables of all varieties (surprise, surprise). Another study found that greater adherence to a Mediterranean-style diet was also positively associated with telomere length. What may be even more worthy of note are the foods that have been negatively associated with telomere health, and which have been shown to increase inflammation, shorten our telomeres, and accelerate the aging process. Processed meat is one food that has been shown to be negatively correlated with telomere length. Another study demonstrated a modest relationship between shortened telomere length and polyunsaturated fatty acids–such as those found in canola oil, sunflower oil, corn oil, and fish such as salmon, trout, mackerel, and herring.

If you are interested in gaining further knowledge of the role of nutrition on healthy aging and optimum health and performance, Infofit offers multiple opportunities for nutrition education. You can check them out here!

Wishing you all the best on your journey to optimum health!

Written by Theresa Faulder, Master’s in English, ACE-Certified Personal Trainer, and Infofit fitness blog writer.

Works Cited

Cassidy, A., Vivo, I. D., Liu, Y., Han, J., Prescott, J., Hunter, D. J., & Rimm, E. B. (2010). Associations between diet, lifestyle factors, and telomere length in women. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 91(5), 1273-1280. doi:10.3945/ajcn.2009.28947

Khaw, A. K., Hande, M. P., Kalthur, G., & Hande, M. P. (2013). Curcumin inhibits telomerase and induces telomere shortening and apoptosis in brain tumour cells. Journal of Cellular Biochemistry, 114(6), 1257-1270. doi:10.1002/jcb.24466

Pavanello, S., Hoxha, M., Dioni, L., Bertazzi, P. A., Snenghi, R., Nalesso, A., . . . Baccarelli, A. (2011). Shortened telomeres in individuals with abuse in alcohol consumption. International Journal of Cancer, 129(4), 983-992. doi:10.1002/ijc.25999

Shay, J. (2014). Faculty of 1000 evaluation for Stand up for health – avoiding sedentary behaviour might lengthen your telomeres: secondary outcomes from a physical activity RCT in older people. F1000 – Post-publication peer review of the biomedical literature. doi:10.3410/f.718877821.793499922

Tiainen, A., Männistö, S., Blomstedt, P. A., Moltchanova, E., Perälä, M., Kaartinen, N. E., . . . Eriksson, J. G. (2012). Leukocyte telomere length and its relation to food and nutrient intake in an elderly population. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 66(12), 1290-1294. doi:10.1038/ejcn.2012.143

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