The fountain of youth: the scoop on telomeres

Dreamstime photo by Suravid

Dreamstime photo by Suravid

People have long been seeking elixirs promising the fountain of youth. And these days, there’s certainly no shortage of formulations available that promote healthy longevity.  There are snake oil salesmen a plenty. But the science is simply not there yet.

Researchers, though,  are now making breakthroughs in determining factors which can affect the lifespan of an individual. It’s all about the length of telomeres- components which are part of our genetic material.  As we age, telomeres shorten and with this progressive shortening can come ill health and a shorter lifespan.

Think of telomeres as protectors of your genes – almost like bookends on either side of your chromosomes that are found in each of your body’s cells.  Each time a cell divides, the telomeres shorten.  How fast cells divide depends on where the cells are found. For example,  liver tissue and that found in the stomach have similar rates of cell division. Over the years, the  rate of telomere shortening dictates the pace at which you may age.

Shorter telomeres may also do a poor job of protecting cells and as a result, are linked to a higher risk of certain cancers. While  various aspects of your genes determine your health, the rate of telomere shortening plays a major role as well. This rate can be either increased or decreased by specific lifestyle factors.

Think of your health as you might a game of cards. While you may be dealt a great hand to start with, it’s how you play the game that determines whether you have a winning hand.

Some factors that affect telomere length, like age and your gene make-up, are beyond your control. Social and economic status along with the environment play a role but unfortunately, these aren’t ones you can easily modify either.

But there are a number of  major ones you can indeed do something about including smoking cessation.  Eating smart and living active  are also high on the list of actions that can slow down telomere shortening and thereby the onset of age-related diseases.

The latest research on telomeres, published in the journal Lancet, assessed lifestyle changes and their impact on telomere length  in men with a less aggressive type of prostate cancer.  The study, conducted by Dr.  Dean Ornish,  who was one of the first to champion how healthy living   not only stopped the progression of heart disease but could actually reverse it.

While it was a small study, those subjects who took part in the comprehensive lifestyle changes were compared to a control group who made no changes to their regular habits.  The exciting news is that the men who incorporated diet, activity and stress management   modifications  not only halted their telomere length from shortening, they experienced telomere lengthening.  In the control group, on the other hand, telomere length did indeed shorten as was expected.

Other scientific investigations point to a number of strategies for lengthening your telomeres. I’ll have those for you in my next post.

Have you come across any supplements that promise longevity? Please share in the comment section below.

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Categories: Research Roundup

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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