The Long and Short of Telomeres and Aging

The Long and Short of Telomeres and Aging

August 03, 2022

Telomere. The word sounds like something from a science fiction movie, doesn’t it? But years of research have shown that these cell structures are all science and no fiction — they’re a very real part of our bodies and play a crucial role in aging and health.

What are telomeres?

Scientists often compare telomeres to the protective plastic tips at the ends of shoelaces. Shoelace tips are called aglets, and they prevent laces from unraveling. To keep the comparison going, think of your chromosomes — the structures inside your body’s cells that contain genetic information — as shoelaces.

Like aglets attached to shoelaces, telomeres form caps at the ends of your chromosomes to keep the genetic material from fraying. They protect those cells and genes so the only parts of the chromosome that are lost are the telomeres. (It would be much worse to lose the cells.)

The “long” of telomeres

Years of research have found that the length of a telomere can be measured in base pairs. The length of a telomere is basically its life span. For example, a newborn baby's telomeres are about 10,000 base pairs long. But a 65-year-old's are only about 4,500 base pairs long. From that example, it’s not hard to see that the longer someone lives, the shorter the telomere’s “life span” becomes. This is part of the aging process.  

The “short” of telomeres

As discussed, every time your cells renew themselves, the protective telomeres get slightly shorter. Shorter telomeres are one of the main reasons human cells grow old and we age.

There’s something else that causes telomeres to shorten: oxidative stress. This is when free radicals and antioxidants aren’t balanced. We need the right number of antioxidants to make sure the free radicals stay proportional, too. When the free radicals begin to outnumber the antioxidants, the result is oxidative stress — and shorter telomeres.

Studies have shown that shorter telomeres tend to be linked to diseases that occur more often as we age, including heart disease and cancer. If you’re wondering how to keep your telomeres longer, and possibly delay aging, here are some lifestyle factors you may want to keep in mind to help you avoid oxidative stress.

Telomeres and stress

Major or long-lasting stress may shorten telomeres. But studies have shown that when you lower stress, you may be able to stabilize your telomeres. Other studies have reported that certain mind-body practices increase an enzyme in the body called telomerase. This enzyme helps restore telomeres. If you’re not already doing it, think about adding one or more of these mind-body approaches to your day:

  • Meditation
  • Qi gong
  • Tai chi
  • Yoga

Telomeres and food

Telomere science supports having a whole food diet to help keep telomeres from getting shorter prematurely. Here are the kinds of food that may be related to longer telomeres.

  • Get your antioxidants.
    • Eat produce like oranges, leafy green vegetables, berries, apples, carrots and tomatoes.
    • Beans, whole grains, nuts, seeds and green tea also have antioxidants.
    • A couple of studies have even shown that coffee and green tea drinkers had longer telomeres.
  • Get your fatty acids.
    • Research has shown that higher levels of omega-3 in the blood seemed to slow telomere shortening over the years.
    • Some kinds of fish, seaweed and walnuts can help limit oxidative stress.
  • Put less of these foods in your system:
    • Processed foods and meat
    • Sugary drinks

Telomeres and sleep

Sleep deprivation affects us on the cellular level. Think of your telomeres as needing to be as well-rested as you. People who get about seven hours or more of sleep every night tend to have longer telomeres. Those who only get five hours of sleep or less have shorter telomeres. Some other problems that may be linked to shorter telomeres include:

  • Sleep apnea
  • Insomnia
  • Snoring
  • Poor sleep quality caused by things like an overheated room

Keep this in mind about telomeres: More research is needed to learn whether telomere length plays a big part in aging or is just a sign of aging (like graying hair). The long and short of telomeres is that it can only do you good to avoid stress, eat better and sleep well.

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