Telomeres are now considered the holy grail of longevity. These protective tails on the ends of chromosomes have been found to contain your “cellular age”, plus science is now discovering ways to turn back the clock. After years of DNA research, we now know that telomeres safeguard your “vitality blueprint”, making them the key to health and beauty. “Telomeres are the caps at the end of each strand of DNA that protect our chromosomes, similar to the plastic tips that prevent shoelaces from fraying,” explains Dr Danny Meyersfeld, a molecular biologist and founder of the Gauteng-based genetic testing company DNAlysis. “During cell division, as the chromosomes are copied, this ‘copying process’ cannot extend to the telomeres; hence the telomere shortens slightly every time a cell divides.”
Meyersfeld continues: “When they get too short, the cell can no longer divide; it becomes inactive or ‘senescent’, or it dies. This shortening process is associated with aging.”
For some people telomeres can stay the same length for many years, even decades. Says Dr Sian Hemmings, senior research scientist in the Department of Psychiatry at Stellenbosch University: “Telomere length at birth differs between 5 000 and 15 000 base pairs. Telomere length is genetically determined, but there are a number of gene variants that are implicated, and environmental factors will also play a role.”
Daniel Belsky, lead study author from Duke University’s Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development, analysed the aging process of 954 adults from the age of 26 until they were 38. He found that some of the subjects had not physiologically aged at all over the 12-year period. Three Dunedin Study members even appeared to grow physiologically younger during their 30s, yet others had aged two to three times as much over the same period. A study on centenarians, published in the Oxford Journal, May 2008, found that people who made it to 100 had longer telomeres than most 85-yearolds.
Researchers believed this was because centenarians lived physically and emotionally healthier lives. Some people can even age three years in one year. The question is, why does the cellular age vary so dramatically from person to person?
Telomeres Shortening Our Youth
Short telomeres are seen as a measure of cumulative DNA damage over one’s lifespan. “Telomeres can be damaged by things such as glycation and oxidative stress,” describes Meyersfeld. “Exposure to these harmful environmental influences will damage our telomeres, increasing risk for diseases such as cancer.”
Hemmings agrees. “There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the shorter telomeres are associated with the development of cardiovascular disease, Type- 2 diabetes and psychiatric disorders (such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder) independent of age.”
Even though prenatal conditions and early adversity contribute to shortened adult telomere length, it seems as though current lifestyle choices can radically help or hinder one’s telomere story.
Oxidative Stress Damage:
Advanced glycation end products (AGEs), also known as glycotoxins, are cellular damaging compounds. AGEs are created when sugars bind to proteins or fats without the supportive action of enzymes. Glycation can happen during cooking (especially processed foods) or within the body.
The formation of AGEs is part of normal metabolism, but if excessively high levels of AGEs are reached in the body, they begin to promote oxidative stress and inflammation, both of which are seen as the underlying mechanism responsible for age-related disorders.
AGEs shorten telomere length quite substantially, according to an article in the 2013 publication of Heart, a scientific journal. On the surface, AGEs are also one of the most aggressive causes of wrinkles, fine lines and other results of aging skin. Today beauty products are attempting to stop skin glycation in its tracks. But we can’t expect creams to buffer the oxidative onslaught of poor diet, lack of exercise, pollution and high stress levels alone. Hyperglycaemia is strongly associated with the internal production of AGEs. This explains why the highest concentration of AGEs is found in Type-2 diabetics and people with insulin resistance. Out of all lifestyle diseases, the most rapid shortening of telomeres has been documented in diabetes Type- 2, which is considered to be a premature-aging syndrome. Thankfully, dietary changes do make a difference to insulin levels and telomere length.
For a while now we have known emotional stressincreases the aging process. “There are many variables that affect our ability to deal with stress; telomere length may be one of the many, in that it could affect certain cognitive processes in the brain,” explains Hemmings.
In a study on Organismal Stress and Telomeric Aging, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA, researchers found psychological stress could affect cell aging through at least three pathways: immune system, oxidative stress and telomerase (enzyme) activity. Psychological stress could potentially lead to oxidative stress by chronically activating the neuroendocrine stress responses. In short, women who were more stressed had more oxidative damage, shorter telomeres and less telomerase activity.
At San Francisco University, psychologist Aoife O’Donovan studied the length of immune cell telomeres in postmenopausal women (caregivers). The results were interesting in that the amount of stress didn’t shorten the telomeres as much as the amount of anticipated stress. In other words, their cellular aging was influenced mainly by their emotional perception of life. The more positive women had the least amount of stress damage.
How To Reverse Cellular Aging
Right now the international debate is on: is the length of telomeres controlling aging, or are stress and unhealthy lifestyle habits leading to shorter telomeres? Hemmings believes: “More research is required to determine whether this is a cause or effect situation.” Whether telomeres are navigating the aging process or not, we are the ones controlling the accelerator pedal.
“Telomeres do shorten with each replicative process, although this shortening is counteracted somewhat by physiological methods, such as lengthening by the telomerase enzyme, in some cases,” suggests Hemmings. Telomerase is an enzyme that is now considered the fountain of youth, as it can increase the length of telomeres. Telomerase also enables cells, mainly reproductive and stem cells, to replicate without shortening. Research is now uncovering solid ways to slow down the aging process using telomeres to navigate the way.
A healthy lifestyle is step one in telomere integrity. The first study to show the substantial difference it makes was published in the Lancet Oncology,
October 2013. Researchers invited a group of men with low-risk prostate cancer to eat a low-fat, plant-based diet and participate in moderate exercise, stress management and social support for five years. The telomeres of all 35 men actually grew over this period, whereas the control group, who made no lifestyle changes, had shortened telomeres.
Researchers also found the telomere increase varied according to the degree to which the men implemented their healthy lifestyle changes. Interestingly, the same result came up in December 2013, with a study of dietary weight loss and telomere length in postmenopausal women, published in the journal Obesity. They showed that weight loss alone does not change telomere length, nor does intensive exercise without dietary change. But the women who experienced three months on a plant-based diet with moderate 20 minutes of exercise a day had a significant increase in telomere protection.
Food is clearly an important factor in telomere length. The Journal of the American Dietetics Association published in-depth research on AGEs and diet in July 2013. They found animalderived foods high in fat and protein are generally AGE-rich and prone to new AGE formation during cooking. In contrast, carbohydrate-rich foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains and milk contain relatively few AGEs, even after cooking.
AGEs were significantly reduced by cooking with moist heat, using shorter cooking times, cooking at lower temperatures, and by use of acidic ingredients such as lemon juice or vinegar.
Magnesium (found in dark green leaves) is well documented for enhancing telomerase activity. “Natural products such as derivatives from the chinese astragalus plant, ginko biloba and resveratrol have been shown to activate telomerase. Theantioxidants N-acetylcysteine (NAC) and tocopherol (vitamin E) enhance telomerase activity,” according to an article on telomeres and atherosclerosis in the Cardiovascular Journal of Africa, November 2012. The rate of cellular aging and telomere shortening seems to be a balancing act between oxidative stress and antioxidant defence.
Safely catching a few sunbeams on your skin (withoutsunblock) is another important piece of the telomere-lengthening puzzle. A simple nutrient that is associated with longer leukocyte (a type of white blood cell) telomere length in women is vitamin D, according to a 2007 paper published in the American Society of Clinical Nutrition journal. And the last component is mindfulness. In a study on meditation and telomere length, published in the journal Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences in 2005, researchers found that meditation can reduce mental stress, and increase positive states of mind and hormonal factors that may promote telomere maintenance.
So do we need to get our telomeres tested? “The primary benefit of a telomere test may be the information it provides to an individual regarding their biological age, and whether this is different from their chronological age,” explains Meyersfeld.
“This information may enable a person to make adjustments to his/her lifestyle that can lead to better health and a longer life.”
“As we embrace the era of personalised medicine and the knowledge that each one of us has unique requirements for best managing our health, so genetic testing has become, and will continue to become, an essential tool for medical practitioners,” believes Meyersfeld. In the meantime, taking in a healthy dose of sunshine, a quiet moment and your favourite colourful veg seems like a good first step in eliminating your aging worries.”