Telomeres and Aging:
What are telomeres and how to protect them

By Val Silver

telomere shortening

The connection between stress, telomeres and aging is well documented.  Researchers know that telomeres shorten as we age, and that longer telomeres protect us from chronic disease and premature aging.  This knowledge has led to studies aimed at learning how to preserve telomere length and prevent accelerated shortening  for a healthier, longer life.

Research into chromosomes and the their end caps shows that physical and mental stress contribute to accelerated aging.  It also suggests that certain supplements, meditation, exercising smart, and reducing stress can protect and even lengthen telomeres in order to turn back the hands of time. 

What are Telomeres?

Telomeres are protective caps or structures made of DNA protein. They are located at each end of our chromosomes. They allow cells to replicate, or divide, without damaging the DNA inside them. 

Normally, a cell copies itself about 50 times before the end caps get too short to hold the DNA together. At this point, the cell can no longer divide. It dies and is replaced with a new one.  Skin cells and stem cells are two types of cells that divide this way. Your body replaces about 30 billion cells every day.

Most adult cells have inactive telomerase, the enzyme that keeps the caps long. Heart and nerve cells do not divide. Exceptions are younger cells, immune cells, and reproductive cells (sperm and eggs)  which can copy themselves indefinitely. Cancer cells are another exception. Activated telomerase lengthens their end caps so they can grow indefinitely.

The Connection Between Telomeres and Aging

Biological age, indexed by telomere length, and chronological age, which is measured in years, are not identical, but there is a correlation. Although a variety of factors influence aging, in general, the older you are, the shorter your telomeres. As cells divide, telomeres shorten. However, they can be preserved or lengthened by an enzyme called telomerase.

Longer end caps are a sign of youthfulness. Your brain, organs and systems function better when telomere length is preserved. Shorter end caps indicate cellular aging. 

Even though telomere shortening is expected as cells divide, things sometimes go wrong. If the caps are too short as the cell divides, the ends of the chromosomes can fray or stick to each other. This scrambles the genetic information and puts you at risk for diseases often associated with aging such as osteoporosis, obesity, insulin resistance, infectious disease, various types of cancer, and death by heart attack.  

Stress and Telomere Shortening

Studies show clear evidence of the relationship between lifestyle, stress, telomeres and aging. Stress, in its many forms, speeds up telomere shortening.

telomeres and aging
  • Physical stress in the forms of free radicals, inflammation, poor diet, toxins and even lack of sleep negatively affect telomerase production.
  • Mental stress also has a huge impact on the your cells.  The stress hormone cortisol causes white blood cells to age faster. It suppresses their protective telemorase production so their end caps shorten and you become more susceptible to illness and premature aging. 

Cell biologist, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn has proven that psychological stress accelerates aging. A study of mothers caring for chronically ill children showed that the longer care was given, the lower the mother's telomerase and the shorter her telomeres had become.

Another study of healthy premenopausal women showed that women experiencing chronic stress had shorter end caps than the low-stress group. This shortening happened at the rate of ten years faster. 

A 2011 study (CG Parks et al) showed that telomeres of full time working women were significantly shorter than their non-working counterparts. 

This interesting video by Drs. Oz and Roizen explain why and how this happens. They also show you an easy way to help yourself calm your body's reaction to stress.

Preserving Your Telomeres

There is still much to learn about telomeres and aging. Scientists are studying how to activate telomerase and turn back the clock on aging. 

  • Although aging is inevitable, you can exert a positive influence on your telomeres and aging process by relaxing and reducing all kinds of stress
  • Eat a healthy plant-based diet rich in whole foods that supply antioxicants, vitamins, and minerals. Avoid processed meat. A multi-ethnic study of 800 people revealed that eating one serving of processed meat per week or less have shorter telomeres. 
  • Consume adequate Omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D to preserve telomere length.
  • Too much alcohol and tobacco shortens telomeres.
  • There is a link between longer telomeres and exercise. Weight training, moderate intensity exercise, and interval training are beneficial, especially for adults between 40 and 65 years old. A study of 5,823 adults aged 20-84 found that women who exercised at least 30 minutes five days a week and men who exercised 40 minutes five times per week had the longest telomeres. On average, their cellular age was nine years younger than sedentary adults and seven years younger than moderate exercisers.
  • Early research shows evidence that an expensive supplement called TA-65, made from astragalus root, activates telomerase causing end caps to lengthen. 
  • Meditate. A 12-week study showed that mindfulness meditation and loving-kindness meditation slowed telomere loss in comparison to a control group. The greatest effect, almost no loss at all, was noted in participants who practiced loving-kindness meditation. The warm, friendly feeling generated toward others obviously blessed them, too. May you be happy, may you be safe, may you be at peace. 

The bottom line is that it is important to avoid substances that compromise your health. Unhealthy habits prematurely shorten your telomeres and accelerate aging. Healthy living and eating habits protect those precious end caps. That is the best insurance to naturally safeguard your cells, your longevity, and your well-being into old age.

Telomeres and aging page updated 01/2021

Related Pages

Source: Study provides evidence that loving-kindness meditation slows cellular aging

For Educational Purposes Only. This information has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. It is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult with your health provider before using natural remedies and/or complementary therapies if you are pregnant, nursing, or you are being treated for a medical condition. Be aware that certain herbs and supplements interact with medications.

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