Telomeres have been implicated in being a marker of our health and aging status.
But, what are telomeres? What do telomeres have to do with aging? More importantly, how can you increase the length of your telomeres?
In this article, we will discuss the association between the health of your telomeres and the aging process, as well as tips and strategies for how to lengthen telomeres.
We will look at:
- What Are Telomeres?
- How to Lengthen Telomeres
Let’s jump in!
What Are Telomeres?
Before we delve into tips for how to increase telomere length, we should cover what telomeres are and the primary functions of telomeres.
Telomeres are the structures found at the ends of chromosomes. A chromosome is a long strand of DNA that contains the genetic information for your cells.
In humans, each cell normally contains 23 pairs of chromosomes, for a total of 46 chromosomes per cell.
The function of telomeres is to help protect your strands of DNA from damage so that the chromosomes can replicate properly during cell division (remember back to high school biology class with the phases of mitosis—prophase, metaphase, anaphase, telophase, and cytokinesis).
Although not a perfect analogy, you can think of telomeres as the plastic ends of your shoelaces.The shoelace itself is a chromosome, and the plastic ends are the telomeres.
Without the plastic ends (telomeres), the end of the shoelace can become frayed and may split or become damaged, and it is harder to line up and use your shoelaces when you are trying to string them into a new pair of shoes.
Telomeres help keep the ends of your chromosomes nice and neat so that all of the genetic information stays intact.
They allow the chromosomes to line up neatly and properly for cell division without crossing over or getting tangled up with other chromosomes, which could cause mutations and swapping of genetic information between chromosomes during cell division.
Research has suggested that among numerous cellular changes that contribute to the aging process, telomere shortening is one of the best indicators of the lifespan of the cell and the status of the aging process.
As we age, the length of the telomeres at the end of the chromosomes decreases, so our telomeres shorten.
The rate of telomere shortening is thus thought to be correlated or indicative of the rate of aging.
Additionally, short telomeres have been associated with chronic age-related diseases.
Preserving telomere length can help stave off the aging process, which is why people become interested in how to increase telomere length.
Unfortunately, it is likely impossible to lengthen your telomeres, but there are lifestyle changes you can implement to increase the rate at which your telomeres shorten.
This, in turn, may help you look and feel younger and may prolong your life by attenuating the natural aging process.
How to Lengthen Telomeres
As mentioned, although we would all love there to be a magic bullet for how to lengthen telomeres, we likely cannot lengthen telomeres.
However, there is evidence to suggest that certain lifestyle choices can help decrease the rate of telomere shortening, potentially slowing the aging process.
Here are some tips for how to keep your telomeres longer and healthier:
#1: Eat a Plant-Based Diet
The single best thing you can do to support the health of your telomeres is to focus on the quality of your diet.
Numerous studies have found that what we eat has a significant role in telomere length and health and the rate at which the telomeres shorten.
For example, one large review amassed the results of more than 20 scientific studies that investigated the association between telomere length and dietary habits.
The conclusions from the review were that following a plant-based diet or Mediterranean Diet was most strongly associated with longer telomeres.
Additionally, studies have found that people whose diets are higher in antioxidants, such as vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene, also have longer telomeres than age-matched peers whose diets are not rich in these antioxidants.
Of note, the participants in the study, who were all women, also had a significantly lower risk of breast cancer when consuming a diet rich in carotenoids and antioxidants.
The converse was also true; diets low in antioxidants were associated with a markedly shorter telomere length and a higher risk of breast cancer.
#2: Eat More Fiber
Fiber has all sorts of health benefits, such as providing a sense of satiety to control appetite and reduce hunger, supporting healthy bowel movements and decreasing the risk of constipation, supporting the beneficial bacteria in the gut microbiome, and decreasing the risk of diseases of the digestive system such as inflammatory bowel disease and colon cancer.
Therefore, it is not surprising that studies have found that people who regularly consume more fiber also have longer telomeres.
#3: Make Sure to Get Your Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are a specific type of polyunsaturated fat that has been shown to provide a wide range of health benefits, namely reducing inflammation and supporting the heart and brain.
There have also been studies to suggest that diets rich in omega-3 fatty acids are associated with better preservation of telomere length or a slower rate of telomere shortening.
#4: Reduce Stress
Chronic stress causes deleterious effects on your body and mind. It increases the level of cortisol and can increase oxidative stress, both of which can accelerate telomere shortening.
One study compared the telomere length between two groups of mothers, mothers of healthy children, who were considered to be the “low stress“ group, and mothers of chronically ill children, who were the “high stress“ group because caregiving is a physically and emotionally stressful role.
Results from this fascinating study revealed that the caregivers who were under chronic stress had significantly shorter telomeres as well as significantly reduced telomerase activity (again, this is the enzyme that helps maintain telomere length) than mothers who had low-stress levels with healthy children.
Most shocking of the entire study was the comparison of telomere length: The difference in telomere length between age-matched mothers who were chronically stressed and those with normal stress levels was the equivalent of 10 years of life.
In other words, on a cellular level, mothers who were dealing with stress were presented as if they were 10 years older than they were.
#5: Supplement With Vitamin D
Although most research on factors that can increase telomere length has found that it is typically not possible to lengthen telomeres, there are a few studies that have suggested that it might be possible to lengthen your telomeres if they are already short.
For example, one evidence-based strategy for how to increase telomere length is to take vitamin D supplements.
Vitamin D, which functions as a hormone in the body, plays a role in many processes. One of its many functions is to modulate inflammation. Because inflammation can shorten telomeres, the anti-inflammatory effects of vitamin D can help protect telomere length.
For example, studies have found that people with higher vitamin D levels have longer telomere lengths.
In addition to this association study, there was actually a randomized controlled trial that found that older adults who were given 800 IU of vitamin D daily for 12 months demonstrated significantly reduced markers of oxidative stress and longer telomeres compared to the control group.
This may potentially indicate that Vitamin D can help lengthen shortened telomeres or at least maintain the length of already-shortened telomeres in geriatric individuals.
#6: Exercise Regularly
In addition to dietary strategies to lengthen telomeres or decrease the rate of telomere shortening, being physically active is one of the best ways to keep your telomeres long and healthy.
A very large-scale study that pulled data from over 5000 people as part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) found that those who exercise more have longer telomeres than the end age-matched sedentary individuals.
The primary mechanism by which physical activity is thought to lengthen telomeres or protect telomeres from premature shortening is by decreasing oxidative stress and inflammation in the body.
These adverse changes, in turn, can partially destroy telomeres and cause your telomeres to shorten.
Exercise can help mitigate oxidative stress and inflammation in the body, thereby acting as a shield for your delicate telomeres.
Moreover, exercise may also provide another coping mechanism to protect telomere length. Studies suggest that physical activity increases the activity of an enzyme called telomerase.
Telomerase is the enzyme that helps maintain long telomeres.
For example, one study that investigated the activity of telomerase in athletes found that athletes demonstrated greater activity of this enzyme than nonathletes.
Are you interested in reading more about telomeres and your biological age vs your chronological age? If so, check out our article: Biological Age Vs Chronological Age + 6 Important Factors That Affect Aging.