What Are Telomeres? And Can They Help Us Live Longer?

Damir Regoc

Prolonging Teleomeres - Closest We Ever Got To Genetic Mods For Longevity

Some people seem young beyond their years. We all know the types that stave off grey hair and wrinkles the longest, and who somehow exude the energy of a twenty-five-year-old well into their middle age. 

Inside the nucleus of a cell, our genes are arranged along twisted, double-stranded molecules of DNA called chromosomes. At the ends of the chromosomes are stretches of DNA called telomeres, which protect our genetic data, make it possible for cells to divide, and hold some secrets to how we age and get cancer.

We can compare telomeres to the plastic tips on shoelaces because they keep chromosome ends from fraying and sticking to each other, which would destroy or scramble an organism's genetic information.

Each time a cell divides, the telomeres get shorter. When they get too short, the cell can no longer continue to divide; it becomes inactive or "senescent" or it even dies. This shortening process is at the center of aging, cancer, and a higher risk of early death. So telomeres have also been compared to a bomb fuse.

Nobel Prize For Discoveries About Telomeres

The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet has awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology 2009 jointly to Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider, and Jack Szostak, for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.

This is the most important breakthrough in our knowledge about telomeres. 

Telomere shortening is a well-known hallmark of both cellular senescence and bodily aging. An accelerated rate of telomere shortening is also a common feature of age-related diseases. This is why telomere length has recently been recognized for a long time as one of the most precise biomarkers of aging. 

Telomere Shortening Could Be Part Of The Body’s Defense Against Cancer

Recent research findings, however, indicate that per se can only allow a rough estimate of the aging rate and can hardly be regarded as a clinically important risk marker for age-related pathologies and mortality. 

The deep insight that telomere shortening could be a part of the body’s best defense against cancer was first devised decades ago. Once an early-stage tumor cell has divided a certain amount of times, scientists concluded, depletion of the telomere reserve would likely block further cancer development. Only the cancers that manage to activate telomerase would possibly break through this barrier.

Clinical observations seem to support this hypothesis. Most clinically detectable cancers have re-activated telomerase, often through mutations.

However, despite these issues and limitations, TL remains to be a very informative marker in accessing the biological age. 

Telomeres are the structures at the end of chromosomes, and mounting evidence suggests that telomere length reduces as we age—a change that scientists now consider a number one hallmark of aging. 

What Can We Do Right Now To Help Our Telomeres Stay Longer

Yes, there are things you can do right now. As It turns out, we already knew what telomeres are like:

  • Focus on a plant-rich diet full of fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and phytonutrients. This may result in longer telomeres.
  • Physical activity and exercise decrease oxidative stress. This helps to protect telomeres from damage.
  • Choose naturally folate-rich foods over those fortified with their synthetic variation. 
  • Higher vitamin D levels are associated with longer telomeres.
  • Keep your stress and cortisol levels in check.
  • Reduce or manage stress.
  • Eat a telomere-protective diet full of foods high in vitamin C, polyphenols, and anthocyanins. Monitor cholesterol and sugar levels regularly to avoid the onset of diabetes or high cholesterol.

Telomeres Research Is Showing Great Promise 

Scientists are working hastily to understand more about the distinctions among various cell types. They are attempting to understand how we can overcome those differences to allow this approach to be more universally useful.

One day it may be possible to target specific muscle stem cells in a patient with, for example, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, to extend their telomeres. This could be an amazing medical breakthrough. There are also implications for treating conditions of aging, such as diabetes and heart disease. This has really unlocked the doors to look into all kinds of potential uses of this fantastic new therapy.

Beauty & the Broth

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