Have you ever noticed that two people could be the same age, yet one appears so much older than the other? Or have you noticed that US Presidents exit the White House looking exponentially older than they went in?
The answer might have to do with something called telomeres, little bits of DNA at the end of your chromosomes. Their length is associated with how well a person ages on a cellular level. They're like little clocks sitting in your cells, and your actions, as well as your lifetime experiences, can influence whether or not they deteriorate at a fast rate or slow rate, influencing how well you actually age.
I recently had my telomeres tested with a kit Teloyears sent me, and the results were really eye-opening and I'm glad I did it.
What are telomeres?
Telomeres are fragments of DNA that sit like caps at the ends of your chromosomes, and they keep your chromosomes from fraying or becoming tangled with one another. When chromosomes and DNA are damaged, they can't effectively do their job, leading to a chain reaction of cellular dysfunction, disease and shortened lifespan.
What do telomeres have to do with aging?
Throughout our lives, our cells constantly replenish themselves by dividing. And, every time they divide, those telomeres shorten, but the vital DNA capped by telomeres remains intact. As years wear on, and as our bodies encounter stressors which are both environmental and associated with our lifestyle choices, those telomeres lose their protective length. That natural loss of telomere length, over time, can be accelerated by stresses to the body like lack of sleep, smoking, and poor diet. When they're too short to effectively protect our DNA, cells ages and will not function properly, leading to disease.
In a very real sense, telomeres act as the body's internal clock, marking your cellular and biological age in contrast to the chronological age marked by your birthdate.
Shortened telomeres are not only associated with aging in general, but also with premature aging. Moreover, shortened telomeres are associated with mortality. In a study of 100,000 people, those with the shortest telomere length were more likely to die sooner than people with longer telomeres, and that's even after researchers accounted for external factors like smoking and alcohol consumption.
What do shortened telomeres have to do with disease?
So not only are shortened telomeres linked to aging and mortality risk in general, but they're linked to multiple diseases in particular. Chronic inflammation, related to diet and lifestyle factors as well as stress, is strongly related to shortened telomere length, and chronic inflammation is also related to development of disease.
Shortened telomere length is associated with many chronic health conditions, including:
- Autoimmune diseases, like celiac disease (1, 2), asthma (3) and multiple sclerosis (4)
- Poor cardiovascular health (5)
- Diseases of aging like Alzheimer's disease (6) and Parkinson's disease (7)
- Poor Blood Sugar Handling which is related metabolic disregulation (9, 10) and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (11)
- Various Cancers (12, 13)
What makes you age faster, on a cellular level?
So, what exactly contributes to shrinking telomeres and aging at the cellular level? Some factors related to telomere length are within your control, and other factors are not.
Growing up in a stressful, abusive environment as well as experiencing traumatic or adverse childhood events negatively affects telomere length, dramatically shortening them (more here) and contributes to premature aging in adults. Moreover, if your mother was stressed during pregnancy, that can also shorten your telomere length (more here). Chronic stress in adulthood also decreases telomere length (more here).
While you can't control for a traumatic childhood, and often you can't control for stress in adulthood, either, you can control other factors that will shrink your telomeres and accelerate how fast you're aging. Smoking, poor eating habits including excessive sugar consumption and eating poor-quality fats, exposure to environmental pollutants, and drinking alcohol to excess will shorten telomeres and can contribute to premature aging.
How You Can Regenerate Telomeres and Reverse Aging on a Cellular Level
So here's the beautiful thing, your body has a remarkable ability to heal itself and your telomeres can regenerate, with time and with effort. If you're aging at an accelerated pace, and your telomere length is shorter than it should be for a person of your chronological age (here's a test that will tell you), there's a few steps you can take to turn on the enzyme that helps regenerate and lengthen telomeres. It's like hitting the pause button or the rewind button when it comes to cellular aging.
You'll find that most of these steps are already things you know are good for you, so now it's time to act on them.
Quit smoking if you smoke. Smoking creates oxidative stress and introduces free radicals into your body. It shortens telomeres, accelerates aging and may also contribute to age-related diseases (14).
Breathe clean air. Just as smoking introduces free radicals into your body, so does air pollution (15), which not only shortens telomere length in adults, but also in children. If you live in a city, be mindful of pollution levels, and pay attention to the air quality index. Purchasing a good air filter for home use can also help reduce indoor air pollutants.
Eat an anti-inflammatory, whole foods diet that includes plenty of antioxidant- and vitamin-rich foods, like fruits, vegetables and herbs can help to maintain telomere length (16). Eating foods rich in quality fats, like monounsaturated fat from olive oil or avocados, and omega-3 fatty acids from fish and cod liver oil (17), can increase telomere length. Likewise, avoiding industrially produced vegetable oils as well as sugary foods will also help to support cellular health.
Be mindful of your caffeine intake. Drinking caffeinated beverages is associated with shorter telomeres; however, for some individuals, coffee increased telomere length (18). So giving up caffeinated soft drinks and energy drinks is wise, but it's probably fine to hang onto your coffee if you like it.
Reduce your stress level where you can. Stress is significantly associated with shortened telomere length, so taking measures to reduce the level of stress you face on a daily basis is a smart measure to take, whether that's taking up a meditation practice, leaving a stressful job (if you are able), engaging in charitable work, napping, walking your dog, or attending church or other fellowship. Physical activity also helps to buffer stress.
Move your body, but not too hard. Physical inactivity is associated with shortened telomere length (19), but intense exercise also shortens telomere length because it creates oxidative stress within the body (20). Leading a physically active lifestyle, and taking up low-impact, non-stressful exercise might be the way to go. Yoga, for example, is associated with mild increases in telomere length (21).
Get adequate rest. Poor sleep, insomnia and chronic sleep deprivation are associated with shortened telomeres (22,23). Creating a relaxing pre-bed routine, limiting bright lights in the evening, sleeping in a darkened room, and keeping your bedroom free from distracting, external stimuli like TVs, laptops and smartphones are good habits for better sleep.
Curious? Here's how to test your telomere length and your cellular age.
Just a few drops of blood from a simple prick of the finger is enough to analyze the length of your telomeres and estimate your cellular age. You can do the test at home, when you order a kit, and then send it into the lab, and you'll have your results back in a few weeks.
While a telomere test certainly won't tell you your risk of disease, and it won't help to diagnose any medical conditions (that's what your doctor is for), it will give you an understanding of what's happening in your body on a cellular level. I did my screening through Teloyears, and it was a real eye-opener and has encouraged me to make some significant lifestyle changes.
When you receive your results, you'll also receive a self-assessment to help you pinpoint areas where you might be able to improve your lifestyle, eating habits, sleep or stress level as well as some guidance on measures you can take.
Quick Resources to Improve Your Cellular Health
Order a test kit to check the length of your telomeres (and your cellular age).
If you're concerned about indoor air pollution and its affects on your health, consider picking up an air filter.
Do your best to sleep better, move your body and reduce stress.