Sorry, Peter Pan. You can’t be Boy Scout-age forever. Your telomeres won’t have it. These caps on the ends of your DNA shrink as you get older and have been linked to the chronic diseases associated with aging.
The growing science of epigenetics — or how lifestyle and environment affect our genes — is providing new insight into the aging process and might hold the keys to slowing down the inevitable or even reversing it. At the center of this research? Telomeres.
Like the plastic caps on shoelaces that keep them from fraying, telomeres are protective caps on chromosome strands. Geneticists discovered that after DNA replicates a set number of times, the ends of telomeres shrink and deteriorate. When this happens, your DNA becomes exposed to cellular aging. In recent years, scientists have associated shortened telomeres with cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, many types of cancer and osteoporosis — the entire spectrum of aging-related diseases.
“Telomeres may be more valuable than your birth certificate in determining your biological age,” says Dr. Florence Comite, an endocrinologist and pioneer of precision medicine for disease prevention who has served on advisory committees to the National Institutes of Health.
Many gene researchers believe that by lengthening telomeres we might be able to prevent these diseases — and maybe even lengthen lifespan.
While that might seem highly scientific and futuristic, Comite points out that the actions we can take to protect our telomeres are the same ones we have long known to be crucial for optimizing health: Don’t smoke, stop eating refined carbohydrates, and don’t become sedentary or emotionally stressed.
In short, “your health span is well within your control,” Comite says. Here are some ways to stay strong:
Just say ‘Om.’
Stress, anxiety and depression are all implicated in shortening telomeres. So it’s not surprising that stress-reduction techniques like meditation — or even simply sitting quietly and focusing on your breath — can help. A University of California study determined people who regularly meditated over a three-month period produced good amounts of an enzyme called telomerase that helps preserve telomeres.
Drink water, not soda.
Make water and unsweetened iced tea your go-to beverages. A study from the University of California at San Francisco found that people who drink a lot of sugary sodas have shorter telomeres than people who don’t drink much soda, leading researchers to estimate that drinking a 20-ounce soda every day could age you by more than four years, akin to the results of smoking cigarettes.
Avoid processed foods.
It’s not just what you drink that can accelerate aging. Eating lots of processed foods high in starchy carbohydrates is associated with shortened telomeres and, of course, diabetes. Eat whole foods, like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, and lean proteins.
Snack on sardines.
Fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids like sardines might protect telomeres. A 2013 study from Ohio State University showed that subjects with the most favorable ratios of heart-healthy omega-3s to not-so-great omega-6s also had the longest telomeres.
Take a daily walk.
Daily exercise is a critical component of good overall health. One study of men who made significant lifestyle changes, including improving their diets by eating more fruits and vegetables and getting at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, showed their telomeres were 10 percent longer than those of men who did not practice healthy habits.
Exercise with friends.
Other studies suggest living in an area with lots of positive social interaction might have a protective effect, too. Stay fit, happy and social. These are positive goals that can impact your longevity.
So, How Are Your Telomeres Doing?
While there is a blood test to determine the status of your telomeres and even an expensive supplement you can take to activate telomerase, you don’t have to tap cutting-edge science to protect your telomeres and prevent the diseases impacted by your lifestyle and genes.
In addition to the healthy practices listed in this column, Dr. Florence Comite suggests you influence your health destiny by becoming a self-informed, empowered consumer.
- Scout out the health problems that run in your family. Sit down with parents, siblings, aunts and uncles, and record a family health history.
- Investigate how well you are sleeping and eating, monitor your heart rate and track your exercise.
- See your doctor regularly and ask for simple tests for inflammatory markers, cholesterol, triglycerides and high blood sugar.
“There are so many easy ways these days to help you understand your body better,” Comite says. “Become your own health detective.”
JEFF CSATARI is executive editor of Galvanized Media and Eat This, Not That! magazine.