Aging is inevitable, and a primary reason traces back to the very essence of life. The nucleus of each of your cells contains about 20,000 genes residing on 23 pairs of chromosomes. Chromosomes are tightly coiled, rod-like structures made up of proteins and one double-helix–shaped molecule of DNA encoded with your genome: the blueprints for your growth, development, and physiological function. And at the tips of every chromosome are protective “caps” called telomeres.
As cells divide—which is how new cells are formed—their chromosomes are duplicated in a process called DNA replication. Every time this happens, the chromosomes get a little shorter. If it weren’t for telomeres, the genes at the tail end of a chromosome would be damaged during cell division, causing cellular death or mutations that could lead to cancer and other diseases. Instead, telomeres take the hit. But over time, they get shorter and shorter, and after about 50 divisions (for the average cell type), they wear away. At that point, cellular senescence sets in, and the cell ultimately dies.
Telomeres and telomerase, the enzyme that builds them, are intimately involved in aging, degeneration, and death. Organ systems falter as increasing numbers of cells malfunction or die, so it’s not surprising that many age-related diseases are associated with telomere shortening. In fact, telomere length, most commonly measured in leukocytes (white blood cells), has emerged as a reliable marker of biological age.
Even more exciting is the research showing that it is possible to slow and even reverse telomere erosion—and perhaps stave off disease and premature aging. In fact, telomere preservation may well be the secret to aging gracefully.
Telomeres, Aging, and Lifestyle
Telomeres naturally get shorter as we age, but not at the same rate in all individuals. Some of these differences can be chalked up to genetics, but other factors accelerate telomere shortening. Free radical damage and chronic inflammation—long known to be associated with aging at the cellular level—speed it up, as do smoking, heavy drinking, and obesity.
Conversely, adopting a healthy lifestyle can retard telomere degradation. German researchers compared the telomere length and telomerase activity of athletes and healthy but sedentary people of similar ages. They found little difference among the younger people, whether they exercised or not. In the older group (average age 51), however, there was a “striking conservation” of telomere length in the regular exercisers.
Dean Ornish, MD, known for his studies showing that diet and exercise can reverse heart disease, looked at the effects of lifestyle changes on telomeres in men with prostate cancer. He selected this group because telomere truncation and reduced telomerase activity are markers of disease progression and death in several types of cancer. After three months on a comprehensive lifestyle program—low-fat, primarily vegetarian diet; walking and relaxation sessions six days a week; and basic nutritional supplements—telomerase activity increased by 25 percent.
Stress also affects telomeres. Clear correlations have been demonstrated between perceived stress, urinary levels of stress hormones, and telomere length—the higher the stress, the shorter the telomeres. One of the first studies involved mothers with chronically ill children. Stress had such a negative impact on the telomeres of the women who had been caregivers for the longest period of time that the researchers compared it to the equivalent of 9 to 17 years of aging! Conversely, other studies show that people who are characterized as optimistic have considerably longer telomeres than people who are pessimistic.
Nutritional Supplements to Age Gracefully
I am particularly interested in the new research on anti-aging nutritional influences. We can now add telomere protection to the many established benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. Researchers from the University of California, San Francisco measured the blood levels of EPA/DHA and telomere length in more than 600 people with heart disease. When they retested the patients five years later, they found that those with the highest blood levels of omega-3s had the lowest rate of telomere shortening.
The same goes for vitamin D. British scientists studying 2,160 women found that, after adjusting for age and other factors, the difference in telomere length between those with the highest blood levels of vitamin D and those with the lowest was similar in magnitude to five years of aging.
Multivitamins are also associated with telomere integrity. A research team at the National Institutes of Health found that women who took daily multivitamin supplements had longer telomeres. They also found a link to higher intakes of vitamins C and E. Additional studies suggest that curcumin, grape seed polyphenols, and astragalus compounds also have beneficial effects on telomeres and telomerase.
Telomeres: An Intense Area of Research
Research is underway on several genetic diseases, such as congenital aplastic anemia, that are caused by telomerase defects. Telomerase activators are being tested, as are telomerase inhibitors for the treatment of cancer, since cancer cells are able to divide infinitely without losing their telomeres. And because telomere length and disease severity are closely linked in heart failure, coronary artery disease, and other degenerative disorders, telomere mechanisms are being explored in these and other age-related conditions.
Until all of this comes to fruition, I suggest you embrace the lifestyle habits and nutritional supplements that are proven therapies for retarding telomere shortening and enhancing anti-aging.
Recommendations for Aging Gracefully
You could have your telomere length tested. However, I suggest you simply adopt a healthy lifestyle, get your stress under control, maintain your ideal weight, and implement a good nutritional supplement program that includes a high-dose daily multivitamin with lots of antioxidants (a minimum of 1,000 mg of vitamin C and 300–400 IU of vitamin E), fish oil (1,000-2,000 mg of total EPA/DHA), and vitamin D3 (enough to bring your blood level into the 50–80 ng/mL range, typically between 2,000-5,000 IU daily).
Look for these supplements in your health food store or order from Whitaker Wellness by calling (800) 810-6655.
To enroll in the Whitaker Wellness Institute’s rejuvenating Back to Health Program and learn more about our anti-aging protocols, call (866) 944-8253.