You may have heard about telomeres. If you are like me, you may also have outdated information about them. Thanks to ongoing research and books like The Telomere Effect, we can all benefit from new data. We can all age *better* by extending our healthspan – the number of years we are healthy and vibrant. Here’s what we now know about telomeres and aging.
What are telomeres?
Telomeres (pronounced tee-lo-meres) are the non-coding DNA pairs at the end of the chromosomes. Though they make up less than 1/10,000 of the DNA in all our cells, they are another ingenious part of our engineering. Think of telomeres like the caps at the end of shoelaces. These caps stop shoelaces from unravelling. This is a good analogy – telomeres divide until they are too short and cell division stops. (There are other reasons cells lose their function and vitality).
What happens when cells stop dividing? Cell renewal is how we grow, repair, and regenerate. Senescent cells – the ones no longer dividing – also promote inflammation in the body. We now know that inflammation underlies illness as diverse as heart disease and diabetes.
To maintain homeostasis, cells go through apoptosis or preprogrammed cellular death. Sometimes these senile cells aren’t taken out of action right away and diseasespan begins.
Here’s what we knew about Telomeres and Aging
Each time a cell divides, the telomeres shorten. We start off with about 10,000 base pairs as newborns. These dwindle to less than 5,000 base pairs for someone in their 60s. Aging we are told is linear.
Here’s what we now know
Aging is far from linear. It is a dynamic process. The enzyme telomerase can and does replenish the base pairs and lengthen telomeres. Yes, telomeres according to research can actually lengthen. It’s a whole new world for us about telomeres and aging!
Your telomeres, it turns out, are listening to you. They absorb instructions you give them. The way you live can, in effect, tell your telomeres to speed up the process of cellular aging. But it can also do the opposite.
The Telomere Effect1
How do we enjoy better health and a longer healthspan?
The Telomere Effect is authored by Elizabeth Blackburn, a molecular biologist, and Elissa Epel, a health psychologist. Their areas of focus are, respectively, telomeres and psychological stress. They teamed up 15 years ago for research. If this resource book isn’t in your library, put it on your reading list. It’ll change everything you thought you knew about aging.
What happens with telomeres is epigenetic, rather than genetic. We may inherit telomere length from our parents -yes, it’s a direct transmission. What happens afterwards largely depends on how we live. As they say, it depends on what we do – the foods we eat, how we respond to stress and emotional challenges, how much sleep and exercise we get, and the level of social cohesion, just to name a few factors. Because these impact our telomeres, it impacts aging.
Key Takeaways About Telomeres and Aging Better
Telomeres and Stress
Childhood stress has a negative effect on telomeres. This means exposure to a few adverse life events such as being neglected in orphanages, can mean shorter telomeres. The good news is that telomeres can lengthen if children are removed from such situations and nurtured. As adults they can also learn mind-body techniques such as meditation and Qigong to reduce stress and to increase telomerase.
Chronic stress is toxic stress. This is severe stress that lasts for years, such as being the family caregiver for chronically ill children or elderly parents with dementia. The good news is that stressful events that happened more than five years before don’t have much of an impact. Unless the person develops depression. So please do get help if you are struggling with depression or think you may be. Also when we find meaning and purpose we deal better with stress. This is often the case for family caregivers.
While we cannot always control our initial response to a challenging situation, we can moderate our subsequent behaviour. For example, techniques such as HeartMath tools can help someone reset afterwards. These tools also help us prep ourselves beforehand. By transforming a threat response into a challenge response, we are able to utilize the body’s arousal as fuel to rise up.
Telomeres and Social Cohesion
Social cohesion is tied to our stress response. When we live in neighbourhoods with high social cohesion, we feel safe and we trust our neighbours. When we are able to do this, we are not always experiencing hyper vigilance and a threat response. Social cohesion, it must be remembered, is not about income level. Economics of course does play a role as they often impact a neighbourhood’s safety and beauty.
The authors of The Telomere Effect address this in the section “Can Social Disadvantage Be Passed Down Through the Generation?” The short answer is yes – because a child directly inherits at conception shorter telomeres that the parents may have due to chronic stress and malnutrition. A baby’s telomeres continue to be affected in the womb by the mother’s ongoing level of stress and health status. These are patterns that they have noticed and while a more complicated and politically driven issue, overall better policies need to be implemented to support better pre- and post-natal health. Organization such as the David Lynch Foundation offers free meditation to children and this can help level the playing field.
It probably doesn’t come as a surprise that urbanites tend to be more vigilant, adaptive though unhealthy when sustained, as The Telomere Effect reminds us. The book cites a 2009 study on 900 older men in Hong Kong. They lived either in the hustle and bustle of Kowloon or in the greener less densely-populated New Territories. Controlling for social class and health-related behaviours, the men living in Kowloon had shorter telomeres.
How much exercise do our telomeres need?
The good news is that research shows we don’t need to be hardcore fit and super athletes. A range of levels and types of exercise can benefit our telomeres. “The physical stress of moderate-intensity regular exercise ultimately improves the antioxidant-free radical balance so that your cells can stay healthier.”2 So yes, we can do *too much* – that’s when we are creating oxidative stress to the level that our telomeres are damaged.
The authors of The Telomere Effect suggest two kinds of exercise – moderate aerobic endurance exercise and high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
How much sleep is enough?
It probably comes as no surprise that we have a sleep debt. People are not getting enough and not good enough sleep. If you are feeling sleeping during the day, more shut eye for you! Rejuvenating REM sleep is essential to your health and well-being. You’re less likely to bite someone’s head off when you are not so sleep-deprived.
Aside from all the benefits of sleep – memory consolidation, metabolism, cognitive function, de-stressing, telomeres need sleep. A small percentage of people thrive on just a few hours of sleep a night. For most people, it’s about seven hours with good sleep-wake rhythms. Again, gauge by how you feel during the day.
Let’s help each other develop good sleep habits – observe healthy transition by turning off the TV and mobile devices early, schedule business meetings at a healthier time, and respect each other’s boundaries.
Other Tips for Healthy Telomeres and Aging Better
- Reduce inflammation, insulin resistance, and oxidative stress with a healthy diet that includes plentiful vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, omega-3s. We all know to minimize processed and sugary foods.
- Minimize environmental toxins – pesticides and heavy metals. Eat organic as much as possible, get to know your farmers, or grow your own veggies. Use clean housecleaning and personal care products. Opt for glass bottles over plastics, even if it’s Bisphenol A-free. Watch out for second hand smoke, including from cannabis, now that it’s legal in Canada. Use a filter to improve indoor air. Choose furnishings, paints, and floor treatments with care to minimize volatile organic compounds. Spend more time in nature.
- Improve your relationships and support network. Get neighbourly – a smile goes a long way. Practice gratitude and be 100% present for your encounters.
Aging is not linear! That’s the biggest takeaway message. Healthier telomeres, healthier aging. Even if we inherit short telomeres from our parents due to their poor health and chronic stress, we can improve and even reverse our telomere length and amount of telomerase. That’s the enzyme that replenishes our telomeres.
We know that epigenetics play a greater role for the most part in our health and longevity. The ongoing research on telomeres, shared in The Telomere Effect, provides further evidence of how our lifestyle choices matter. How we think, the way we deal with stress, especially chronic stress, how well we take care of ourselves through diet, exercise, and restorative sleep – this all matters. While not everything is in our control, we can make better choices when it comes to these areas. Having this information about telomeres, we can age *better*. What changes will you make today?
1 The Telomere Effect by Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD and Elissa Epel, PhD. Grand Central Publishing, 2017. p7
2 Ibid. p176