Telomeres & Aging

October 13, 2021

Telomeres & Aging

In this article:

  • Telomeres in a nutshell
  • Telomere shortening & its consequences
  • Telomeres & aging: Biological vs. chronological age
  • How can we protect our telomeres?
  • Telomere-protective diet

If you’re a fan of literary fiction, you’ve probably already learned your lesson about the secret of eternal youth. Just remember what happened to poor Dorian Gray, who literally had to sell his soul in order to preserve his beauty and youthfulness! Well, had Dorian known about telomeres, he would’ve never taken such drastic measures, to say the least.

Telomeres in a Nutshell

The term telomere (tel-uh-meer) comes from two Greek words: telos (meaning end) and meros (meaning part). The best way to understand telomeres is by picturing them as protective caps at the end of each strand of our DNA. Their function is to protect our chromosomes. [1] Without these protective caps, our cells become exposed to different types of damage. Telomere length is the best indicator of our biological age, which does not always equal our chronological age, but we’ll get into that a bit later. In fact, numerous studies have recognized an undeniable relation between short telomeres and cellular aging. [1]

Telomeres, the specific DNA-protein structures at both ends of our chromosomes, have the important role of preserving information in our genome, protecting it against any unwanted degradation or recombination. While it is completely normal for a small amount of telomere to get lost in each cell division, larger changes are considered to be alarming. When it comes to determining the lifespan of cells, telomere length can predict it pretty accurately. [2] As far as the structure of telomeres is concerned, they consist of thousands of repeats of the same DNA sequence, joined by a special set of proteins known as shelterin. [4]

Without telomeres, there would be significant issues during the DNA replication process, such as loss of genetic information. To prevent the loss, as well as other negative consequences for the cell, telomeres are repeated hundreds or even thousands of times at the end of chromosomes. However, as the cells divide, so do telomeric sequences, in order to protect the genetic information. [3] 

Telomere Shortening & Its Consequences

With every cell division, each chromosome is duplicated to provide a copy of genetic information for the new cell. What makes this process tricky is the fact that the very end of each chromosome cannot be copied, meaning that, with every new duplication, telomeres get shorter and shorter. [4] At a certain point, telomeres can become critically short, resulting in senescence, which is a state where cells are unable to divide, and ultimately die. [3] So, how does our body protect the telomeres from shortening too quickly? An enzyme called telomerase is necessary for consistent telomere replenishing since it enables the DNA sequences to repeat. [4]

Telomerase continuously adds more of the repeating DNA sequence onto the end of the DNA strands in egg and sperm cells. In other cells, however, this enzyme isn’t as active. As we’ve already mentioned, once the telomere is “used up” and there’s no “protective cap” left, the cell can no longer divide. At this point, it is exposed to irreparable damage or even death. The critical point where a cell can no longer be divided is also known as the Hayflick Limit. This name comes from Leonard Hayflick who studied cell division. [5]

When a telomere is too short, a signal about a DNA problem is sent to the brain. If problematic DNA were to get replicated instead of flagged and repaired, faulty cells would be produced - hence the importance of alerting the brain and triggering cellular repair mechanisms. Uncontrolled cell division comes with numerous health consequences, which is why we can’t just prolong the lives of our cells by simply regenerating telomeres with more telomerase. [5]

Unfortunately, not all telomeres are created equal. Some people are born with inherently shorter telomeres or their telomeres aren’t as durable, which causes premature shortening. These conditions are known as Telomere Biology Disorders (or TBDs), and they affect the longevity, replication, structure, and length maintenance of telomeres. Cells with short telomeres have been recognized as one of the primary factors that result in conditions such as pulmonary fibrosis and dyskeratosis congenita. They affect many of the organs in the body. [4]

However, telomere length isn’t the only factor when it comes to the health of telomeres; their shape and structure matter too! Healthy telomeres could be described as paperclip-shaped loops at the end of chromosomes. While more evidence is needed when it comes to associating healthy, lengthy telomeres with life longevity, aging, and telomeres “spending” sure seem to go hand-in-hand. [5]

Telomeres & Aging: Biological vs. Chronological Age

Chronological age is something that, despite our best efforts and lifestyle changes, cannot really alter. Chronological age means the number of days, months, and years an individual has been alive. However, we’ve all met people who look 10 years younger than their chronological age, or those who look twice their age. Therefore, biological age or physiological age - as some like to call it, doesn’t necessarily coincide with our actual age. Thankfully, biological age is something we can work on and improve! [6]

But what is it that determines biological age? There are many external factors, including exercise (or lack of!), nutrition, smoking, and stress that will take a toll on your biological age and overall well-being, and these are certainly factors we have control over. Internal factors on the other hand, aren’t as prone to change and they play a major role in the aging process. These two game-changing factors are DNA methylation, and of course, telomeres. [6]

Even though DNA methylation is a topic that has thus far been under-researched, its role in gene expression control is clear. DNA methylation is one of the most important processes in embryonic development, genomic imprinting, chromosome stability, and more. [6] Methylation is one of the most accurate indicators of aging, and studies focused on it even showed certain body parts age more rapidly than others (for instance, breast tissue). [6]

Aside from the association between telomere length and chronological aging, they’re also a potential cellular marker for biological aging. [7] Numerous studies suggest that telomere length could be defined as a biomarker for healthy aging, indicating that our lifestyle surely affects the length of our telomeres, and consequently - the pace of our biological aging. [7]

But how do we even know if our telomeres are dangerously short? Whether you’re curious about your biological age, or you’d like to be aware of certain health risks, you may be interested in taking a DNA test to determine the state of your telomeres. Yes, specific DNA testing allows you to learn both telomere length and the amount of telomeric DNA in your blood sample. To get the most accurate results, companies compare your results to those of other people. They’ve even generated charts for different age, height, and weight groups. [12]

How Can We Protect Our Telomeres?

Telomere shortening is inevitable, but manageable as we age. Our main concern when it comes to shortening is the pace of that shortening. There are numerous factors contributing to accelerated telomere shortening, including obesity, smoking, lack of physical activity, and an unhealthy diet. Many age-associated health conditions may develop as a result: coronary heart disease, osteoporosis, and diabetes, to name a few. In addition, shorter telomeres have been associated with vulnerability to infections and progressive bone marrow failure, suggests a study conducted by M. A. Shammas. [8]

According to a study on physical activity and telomere length, consistent physical activity, in addition to optimized diet, seems to be the key lifestyle factors when it comes to reducing the risk of chronic conditions. [7] For instance, a study that measured stress levels in sedentary individuals versus physically active people found that stress in sedentary people was negatively affecting telomere length. These findings show that exercise may protect us from stress-induced telomere shortening, among numerous other positive effects. [7] 

Furthermore, oxidative stress has been emphasized as one of the main causes of telomere shortening, which can then trigger subsequent health conditions. The most common factors that increase free radical production causing oxidative stress include UV radiation, pollutants, heavy metals, and xenobiotics. [11] According to a study conducted by Y. Hachmo et al., there is an undeniable connection between telomere shortening and oxidative stress on one hand, and antioxidants and increased cellular proliferative lifespan on the other. [8] That being said, it is clear that antioxidants play a significant role in decreasing telomere shortening rates, and ultimately - cellular health.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) is also one of the methods of protecting your telomeres from accelerated shortening. A recent study on HBOT and telomere length brought to light the potential of this kind of therapy when it comes to preserving telomere length and protecting the cells. HBOT is a therapy that “utilizes 100% oxygen in an environmental pressure higher than one absolute atmosphere (ATA) to enhance the amount of oxygen dissolved in the body's tissues”. [8] In addition to promoting cognitive performance, repeated daily HBOT sessions have also been found to increase telomere lengths by more than 20%! [8]

Telomere-Protective Nutrition

Back in 2009, Elizabeth Blackburn and her colleagues received the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their research focused on the mysterious topic of telomeres. Most of their findings were included in their book titled The Telomere Effect, published in 2017, casting the light upon significant lifestyle changes related to telomere longevity. These lifestyle changes included moderate daily exercise, stress management, social support, and a low-fat, plant-based diet. [9]

If you’re looking to preserve your telomeres, one of the recommended dietary modifications is a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, including both dietary sources (flax, soy, green leafy vegetables, walnuts) and quality omega-3 supplementation. According to a study on the association between marine omega-3 fatty acids and telomeric aging, low levels of DHA and EPA omega-3s may lead to a fast rate of telomere shortening. [10]

We’ve already mentioned the role of antioxidants in telomere health, especially when it comes to combating free radicals and protecting the cells against oxidative stress. When implementing your antioxidant-rich foods, try to prioritize those with vitamin C and E, as they have been associated with long telomeres. [9] Antioxidant fruits and veggies include spinach, berries, tomatoes, citrus, and green leafy vegetables. And if you’re struggling to get enough vitamin C from your diet, you can always supplement with a non-GMO vitamin C that offers high bioavailability.

Aside from antioxidants, it is crucial to enrich your diet with other telomere-saving foods rich in folate (a B vitamin), which has been found to lower inflammation and protect artery linings. Good sources of folate in the diet are broccoli, asparagus, Brussels sprouts, beans, whole grains, and lentils. [9]

Summary

While there’s nothing we can do to stop time, there are certainly measures we can take to age gracefully, even at a cellular level. While many would associate graceful aging with looks and appearance, the telomere theory is here to remind us that aging starts from within. Therefore, in order to truly support our bodies and preserve our youthfulness (remember, it is the biological age that counts!). We must adapt our lifestyles to that specific goal. Whether it be telomeres, skin health, or general well-being, we always come back to basics - a balanced lifestyle including consistent activity and a nutritious diet. Find all-natural, non-GMO supplements to complement your balanced nutrition in our online store!

Summary Points

  • Telomeres have the important role of preserving information in our genome, protecting it against any unwanted degradation or recombination
  • The definition of chronological age means the number of days, months, and years an individual has been alive
  • There are many external factors, including exercise, nutrition, smoking, and stress that will take a toll on your biological age and overall well-being.
  • According to a study on physical activity and telomere length, consistent physical activity and an optimized diet, are the key lifestyle factors when it comes to reducing the risk of chronic conditions
  • If you’re looking to preserve your telomeres, one of the recommended dietary modifications is a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids

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Article References:

  1. T.A. Sciences®. (2009). What Is a Telomere? Retrieved from T.A. Sciences® website: https://www.tasciences.com/what-is-a-telomere.html
  2. Shammas M. A. (2011). Telomeres, lifestyle, cancer, and aging. Current opinion in clinical nutrition and metabolic care, 14(1), 28–34. https://doi.org/10.1097/MCO.0b013e32834121b1
  3. What are telomeres? (n.d.). Retrieved from MBInfo website: https://www.mechanobio.info/genome-regulation/what-are-telomeres/
  4. What are telomeres and how do they function? | RepeatDx. (2019). Retrieved from repeatdx.com website: https://repeatdx.com/what-are-telomeres/
  5. emma.berthold@science.org.au. (2018, October 10). What are telomeres? Retrieved from Curious website: https://www.science.org.au/curious/people-medicine/what-are-telomeres
  6. How Is Age More Than Just a Number? (n.d.). Retrieved from Verywell Health website: https://www.verywellhealth.com/what-is-chronological-age-2223384
  7. Arsenis N. C., You T., Ogawa E. F., Tinsley G. M., Zuo L. Physical activity and telomere length: Impact of aging and potential mechanisms of action. Oncotarget. 2017; 8: 45008-45019. Retrieved from https://www.oncotarget.com/article/16726/text/ 
  8. Shammas M. A. (2011). Telomeres, lifestyle, cancer, and aging. Current opinion in clinical nutrition and metabolic care, 14(1), 28–34. https://doi.org/10.1097/MCO.0b013e32834121b1
  9. Ornish Lifestyle Medicine | Five Foods That Protect Your Telomeres and Extend Your Life. (n.d.). Retrieved from Ornish Lifestyle Medicine website: https://www.ornish.com/zine/five-foods-that-protect-telomeres/
  10. Farzaneh-Far, R., Lin, J., Epel, E. S., Harris, W. S., Blackburn, E. H., & Whooley, M. A. (2010). Association of marine omega-3 fatty acid levels with telomeric aging in patients with coronary heart disease. JAMA, 303(3), 250–257. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2009.2008 
  11. Pizzino, G., Irrera, N., Cucinotta, M., Pallio, G., Mannino, F., Arcoraci, V., Squadrito, F., Altavilla, D., & Bitto, A. (2017). Oxidative Stress: Harms and Benefits for Human Health. Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity, 2017, 8416763. https://doi.org/10.1155/2017/8416763
  12. Fouquerel, E., & Opresko, P. (n.d.). DNA testing companies offer telomere testing – but what does it tell you about aging and disease risk? Retrieved from The Conversation website: https://theconversation.com/dna-testing-companies-offer-telomere-testing-but-what-does-it-tell-you-about-aging-and-disease-risk-118019 




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