Telomeres have been hailed as the key to slowing down aging and curing cancer — yet most people have never even heard of them. We’ve got the expert take on what telomeres are, how they can be used to predict cancer development and accelerated aging, and what you can do now to lengthen your life.
What are Telomeres?
“The human body consists of 100 trillion cells and every one is highly specialized and has a nucleus with 23 pairs of chromosomes — coiled structures rounded on the ends. Each end has a cap piece called a ‘telomere,’” says Dennis Kravetz (also known as “Dr. K”), a PhD-level “researcher of research” on aging.
Think of telomeres as a cross between those plastic tips that keep your shoelaces from fraying and the fuse on a bomb; both analogies are apt because telomeres serve a protective purpose but also shorten over time leading to cell inactivity (called senescence) or cell death. Dr. K says that if enough cells in a person’s body are senescent, then the person will die.
What Causes Telomeres to Shorten?
Our cells divide, on average, every one and a half years, making exact replicas of themselves with one exception: telomeres. Each time a cell clones itself, it’s telomeres get shorter. After 52 divisions, our telomeres become too abbreviated to divide again. This shortening process has been associated with aging, cancer, and a higher risk of death.
Telomeres and Aging
In general, younger people have longer telomeres than older people. However, because other factors have been found to impact telomere length — such a stress management, exercise and nutrition — they aren’t a perfect indicator of chronological age (the length of time a person has been alive). “Measuring telomeres, the protective structures at the ends of our chromosomes, gives a certain length that is correlated with biological age,” says Karen Raden, a licensed and registered integrative nutritionist. Biological age refers instead to the age individuals seem based on biomarkers present in their bodies.
When it comes to aging, telomeres alone don’t dictate life span. Chronological age and gender (women live longer than men) play a role, as do oxidative stress and glycation (the process of sugar molecules bombarding cells and glomming onto protein molecules). However, Dr. K says that changing your habits can defer or slow cell division. “You can’t reverse telomere shortening, but you can slow it down — literally lengthening your life.”
Telomeres and Cancer
Recent joint research conducted by Dr. Lifang Hou’s team at Northwestern University has indicated that a distinct pattern in the changing length of telomeres can predict cancer many years before actual diagnosis. This pattern — a rapid shortening followed by stabilization three or four years before a cancer diagnosis — could yield a new biomarker to predict cancer development.
Dr. Hou says that their next step is to “verify these findings in large, diverse groups of people,” as no single study is going to provide a definitive answer. “It’s when we find the same result many times, in different places, that we know we’re onto something.” Their hope is to eventually turn the pattern they’ve discovered into a useable test for the public.
Meanwhile, Dr. K asserts that other research is underway to test if cancer can be halted with a drug that denies cancer cells the enzyme they need (telomerase) to become “immortal” and continue replicating past the point that normal cells are able to. The trick, he says, is “to avoid killing our immune cells but to kill cancer cells and without a list of nasty side effects.” He believes we are getting close and that we might see a cure to 90 percent of cancers within our lifetime.
What Telomere Testing Can Tell Us
A simple blood test can reveal telomere length. But what can that really tell us? Dr. Hou states that “based on our current scientific understanding of telomeres and their attrition with aging, testing wouldn’t really serve a practical purpose in terms of predicting or preventing disease.”
However, both Raden and Dr. K agree that what telomere testing can provide is motivation to improve lifestyle and stick with a health and wellness plan. Raden says that a single test tells where someone is currently in terms of biological aging while subsequent tests “are important annually to determine if there have been changes based on dietary and other lifestyle interventions.” It is of note that telomere testing is not yet covered by insurance and usually ranges from $200–300.
What We Can Do Now
As mentioned earlier, a critical mass of research has shown that telomere length can be impacted by lifestyle factors. So yes, we can wait until the science reveals the full extent of our telomeres’ reach on aging and cancer, or we can begin now to make changes to improve our health. The following recommendations are based on already-completed telomere studies:
- Exercise: Engage in regular resistance and aerobic exercise for 30-60 minutes nonstop everyday.
- Nutrition: Decrease consumption of sugar and processed foods and eat a “rainbow” of fruits and vegetables.
- Sleep: Get at least 8 hours of sleep per night to allow your body to repair itself; going to bed and getting up at consistent times makes getting a good night of sleep easier.
- Cognitive Enrichment: Tax your brain with word and number puzzles and by quizzing yourself on stories you just heard or shows and movies you just completed.
- Stress Management: Employ positive-thinking practices like gratitude journals and affirmations as well as activities like yoga and meditation to slow down and block stress.
None of these suggestions are revolutionary; we’ve been hearing exhortations to exercise and eat right for years. However, the discovery of direct links between aging and our lifestyle choices, combined with the ability to test and see the impact of our changes year after year, is radically new and worth paying attention to.
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