How old are you really?
Numeric age is based upon the number of years and months we’ve been alive since birth. Biological aging is something quite different. Throughout life our cells live, replicate DNA, reproduce, and die. Our cellular make up and DNA help determine whether or not we’re predisposed to certain age-related diseases and how far along we are in the aging process.
Telomeres are an important indicator for the measurement of our biological age.
What are telomeres?
Chromosomes are molecules that carry the genome (genetic material) for every living organism and each is “capped” at both ends with DNA sections known as telomeres. These contain a DNA sequence, unique to every individual. Telomeres offer protection of genetic material. As cells replicate telomeres naturally become shorter, correlating to a shorter lifespan of cells themselves. Telomeres contain unique DNA that gets replicated many times over.
Why are telomere lengths important?
Telomere lengths are analyzed for chromosomal changes using structural analysis. These are then used to determine biological age, which is compared to samples from other individuals in the general population. Serial evaluation of telomere lengths can be used to indicate biological age relative to others.
How do you measure telomere length?
In the U.S. telomere lengths are measured using The Patient Telomere Score. The score is calculated by measuring the telomeres on white blood cells (T-lymphocytes). This average is compared to telomere lengths on lymphocytes from a sample of the population in the same age range. Because the Patient Telomere Score is used in the United States scores are based on the age of Americans and telomere lengths.
The higher the telomere score, the younger the cells. A higher than average telomere score is ideal.
Many testing methods to determine telomere lengths are currently in use.
- TRF—Terminal restriction fragmentation, an early tool developed to assess telomere lengths and once considered the “gold standard” of testing in the industry.
- Quantitative-PCR (polymer chain reaction) methodology allows for the use of smaller DNA samples, making large group studies possible.
- Single Telomere Length Analysis (STELA)—This testing method is limited to analysis of shorter telomere lengths.
- Quantitative Fluorescence in situ Hybridization (Q-FISH) allows for flexibility in cell forms since fresh, frozen, formalin fixed, paraffin-embedded or permeabilized cells can be used.
- Hybridization Protection Assay—This method of telomere testing is very quick and doesn’t require a high quality DNA sample.
- Single-Strand 3’-Overhang Measurement—This assay for telomere testing is a more focused application as compared to other testing methods.
How does knowing the length of my telomeres benefit my health?
Health professionals can use telomere lengths to better understand where an individual is in terms of cellular age, and explore medications, therapies or lifestyle changes that could slow the aging process and help prevent disease.
How Telomeres Are Shortened
Telomeres are shortened naturally, a little bit every time a cell replicates itself. Certain environmental and social exposure accelerates the shortening process however. Scientists continually introduce new methods to accurately measure telomere lengths.
What diseases and medical conditions are associated with shorter telomeres?
Shorter telomeres have been associated with many medical conditions including metabolic disorders, and degenerative diseases.
- Cardiovascular disease
- Nutritional deficiencies
How does diet affect telomere length and possible repair?
Diet-related inflammation may cause oxidative stress on cells, causing telomeres to shorten faster.
Inflammation foods include:
- Refined carbohydrates
- Fast food
- Highly processed foods
- Artificial sweeteners
- Trans fats
- Saturated fats
Slowing Telomere Shortening—Foods That Decrease Inflammation
By reducing oxidative stress on the body, telomere lengths remain longer.
A diet high in antioxidant foods can slow the progression of telomere shortening.
What to eat to prevent or slow telomere shortening:
10 or more servings of:
- Fresh (uncooked) fruits
- Fresh vegetables
- Mixed fiber
- Monounsaturated fats
- Omega-3 fatty acids
- Cold water fish
- Vegetable proteins (high quality)
Other Protections for Telomeres
Calorie restriction combined with exercise may help protect telomere lengths. Fasting at least 12 hours per night, 4 days per week may offer telomere protection as well.
How can I modify my lifestyle to help prevent premature telomere shortening?
By maintaining ideal body weight and composition, telomere lengths may be further protected. Fat percentage should be below 22% for women, and under 16% for men. It is also very important to decrease visceral fat (fat deep within the core that wraps around vital organs). Engaging in aerobic exercise or resistance training for at least 60 minutes per day may help reduce the premature progression of telomere shortening. Sleep is also very important for telomere protection with at least 8 hours nightly recommended for cellular health and DNA protection. Reducing stress and refraining from tobacco products, may help telomere shortening as well.
Studies conducted in vitro demonstrate how vulnerable telomeres are to oxidative stressors. These stressors promote cellular aging as telomeres shorten.
Other recommendations include:
- Reduce oxidative stress to the cells and the body.
- Address and treat nutrient deficiencies, especially the vitamin D deficiency.
- Identify and treat insulin sensitivity.
Testing telomere lengths may be used as a biomarker for risk of certain disorders and diseases, which could help change the course of an individual’s health.
While there is still much to learn about telomeres and the role they play in health and aging, our understanding of cellular health continues to grow. Amidst the ongoing debate between researchers and scientists over the commercialization of telomere testing, one thing is for certain; with every piece of information gained about our health, the closer we get to preventing and treating age-related diseases.
1Wolinsky, Howard. EMBO Reports, Nature Publishing Group, Sept. 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3166469/.
2Montpetit, Alison J., et al. Nursing research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4292845/ O https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMCRDER TESTS ONLINE.