The 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine was awarded to three scientists for their work on telomeres and telomere shortening, which the Nobel Committee described as a factor in aging, “not only in the individual cells but also in the organism as a whole.”
So, what are telomeres and how are they involved in aging? Inside each of your cells is a compartment called a nucleus which safeguards the 23 pairs of chromosomes that contain your DNA—the unique blueprint for your growth, development, and physiological function.
At the tips of your chromosomes are protective caps called telomeres. Over time, telomeres naturally erode and shorten, which eventually leads to cell damage and death, physical degeneration, and other signs of aging. Is it possible to slow or even reverse telomere shortening—and stave off degenerative diseases and premature aging? Let’s take a look.
What Do Telomeres Do?
New cells in your body are constantly formed as single cells divide into two identical “daughter” cells. During cell division, your chromosomes are duplicated in a process called DNA replication. The function of telomeres is to protect your chromosomes during this process.
If it weren’t for telomeres, the DNA at the end of a chromosome could be damaged during cell division, which could cause the cell to die or lead to disease-causing mutations. Instead, telomeres take the hit. With every cell division, the telomeres get a little shorter, and after about 50 divisions (the average for most cell types), telomeres wear away.
At that point, the chromosomes are vulnerable to damage, cells can no longer replicate, and they usually die. As more and more cells degenerate or die, tissues and organs falter. This is why aging and telomere shortening go hand in hand. In fact, telomere length, most commonly measured in leukocytes (a type of immune cells), is considered to be a reliable marker of biological age.
Other factors besides cell division can also cause telomere damage and, by extension, premature aging. We all know people who retain robust health at an advanced age while others are old before their time. Studies have shown that older individuals with shorter telomeres tend to be in poorer health and have a higher risk of death than those with longer telomeres.
How to Increase Telomeres Length Naturally
Some of the differences in rates of telomere shortening can be chalked up to genetics, but smoking, excess alcohol, inactivity, poor diet and sleep, stress, and obesity also accelerate telomere shortening.
Here are some steps you can take for preserving and even extending telomere length:
- Diet. Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, one of the scientists awarded the Nobel Prize for her telomere research, recommends a plant-based diet, heavy on fresh vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts, and legumes. You don’t have to go vegan, but do include more fiber- and nutrient-rich plant foods in your diet.
- Physical activity. Exercise helps conserve telomere length. Some studies suggest aerobic exercise is more beneficial while others say strength training is the way to go. I say hedge your bets and do both.
- Stress reduction. Another factor that adversely affects telomeres is stress. Research suggests that the higher the stress level, the shorter the telomeres. Do your best to reduce your stress level.
- Sleep. Sleep apnea, circadian rhythm disruptions, and plain old insomnia are also associated with shorter telomere length. Solving your sleep problems is one of the best things you can do for all aspects of your health.
A Targeted Nutritional Approach
These lifestyle interventions—which help optimize nutritional status, weight, stress hormones, circadian rhythms, and markers of oxidative stress and inflammation—all protect against telomere shortening. So do these nutrients.
- Omega-3 fatty acids. In a study published in JAMA, Dr. Blackburn and colleagues compared the blood levels of EPA and DHA omega-3s and the rate of telomere shortening in more than 600 men and women with heart disease. When they retested them five years later, the participants with the highest blood levels of omega-3s had the lowest rate of telomere decline. I suggest eating more omega-3-rich fish and taking a minimum of 900–1,000 mg of EPA/DHA per day.
- Vitamin D. A 2020 clinical trial involving older people with mild memory problems found that after 12 months of supplementation with vitamin D, leukocyte telomere length was significantly greater, markers of oxidative stress were lower, and results of cognitive function tests were better. I generally recommend 2,000–5,000 IU of vitamin D3 daily, or enough to maintain a blood level of 50–80 ng/mL
- Multivitamins. National Institutes of Health researchers reported that women who took daily multivitamin and mineral supplements had longer telomeres. They also found positive associations between higher intakes of antioxidants like vitamins C and E. Make sure your multi contains reasonably high amounts of these and other vitamins and minerals—the RDAs just aren’t enough.
- Astragalus. A concentrated proprietary extract of this botanical, a mainstay in traditional Chinese medicine, has been shown to lengthen telomeres. Take as directed.
The Future of Telomere Research
Scientists are learning more and more about why telomeres are important, their effects on degenerative disorders such as diabetes, Alzheimer's, heart disease, cancer, and premature aging, and how to safely support telomere health.
They are also researching telomerase, an enzyme that maintains and increases telomere length. Telomerase is active only in stem cells and cells that make sperm and eggs. It is silenced (inactive) in most of your body’s cells, which is why telomeres shorten over time. In cancer cells, however, telomerase is reactivated, which is one reason for cancer cells’ uncontrolled growth—there is no limit on cell division. This makes telomerase an attractive target for cancer therapies. Treatments that inhibit telomerase activity could potentially put the brakes on cancer.
Your Action Plan
I have been asked about telomere testing. Several companies offer lab tests or home testing kits that measure leukocyte telomere length, but I am not convinced of the benefits of these tests. Whether your telomeres are long or short, I would still recommend that you exercise, eat right, get your sleep schedule and stress level under control, maintain your ideal weight, and adopt a good nutritional supplement program.
If telomere test results would motivate you to stick with such a program, then by all means go for it. If not, save your money, embrace the recommended lifestyle changes and nutritional supplements, and get healthy!