Protect Your Telomeres To Prevent Aging
Telomere Loss as a Sign of Aging
Following on from last week’s Q&A on Telomeres with Miles Price, we will continue the discussion on telomeres, aging and health.
Aging refers to the structural and functional decline of an organism with time. A 2013 review summarised the current evidence to suggest nine components of the process which are now referred to as The Hallmarks of Aging1. In this review, telomere loss was labelled as one of nine central molecular causes of aging because:
- It occurs as part of normal aging
- It can be experimentally increased to accelerate aging
- It can be experimentally decreased to retard normal aging and increase lifespan
Whilst more evidence from human studies is needed to prove a causal relationship, epidemiological evidence suggests that telomere length could be used as a marker of biological age and a possible prognostic tool for many age-related diseases2.
There is evidence to suggest that in humans, lifestyle choices have an impact on telomere erosion3. In this article, we will delve deeper into the role of lifestyle on telomere attrition, focusing on the immune system and inflammation in particular. We will discuss the current evidence about the modifiable lifestyle factors and the actions you can take now to reduce your risk of premature aging.
But first, a little recap on telomeres.
What are telomeres?
In order for tissues to grow and renew, cells need to replicate. However, their capacity to do so is limited4.
Our genetic information is contained within the nuclei of our cells, where the DNA double-helices are twisted into structures called chromosomes. Before cells can divide, the DNA must be replicated. With each DNA replication, some of the genetic sequences are lost – a phenomenon referred to as the ‘end-replication problem’5. But does this mean we lose important genetic information with each replication? No, and this is where telomeres come in.
Telomeres are special non-coding nucleotide sequences that make up the ends of an organisms’ chromosomes. Telomeres consist of short and repetitive sequences that have been evolutionarily preserved to act as ‘buffers’ against the end-replication problem5,6.
Once the cell reaches its minimum telomere length (referred to as the ‘Hayflick limit’) it ceases to replicate and becomes senescent5. This process is part of the cell’s lifecycle. Telomere length determines the ‘expiry date’ of cells. Whilst normal telomere functioning is important for minimising time-dependent cellular damage, telomere dysfunction can lead to accelerated aging1.
Lifestyle factors and Telomere Attrition2,3
Several lifestyle factors (Fig.1) have been implicated in telomere attrition:
- Poor nutrition
- Alcohol consumption
Whilst telomere attrition is a complicated and multifactorial processes, chronic low-grade inflammation seems to play an important role. So let’s discuss this further.
Fig 1. Image taken Bär and Blasco (2016) on NCBI and is a schematic representation of telomeres in aging and disease2.
Inflammation has become a bit of a buzzword in media and it is often portrayed in a negative light. The process of inflammation is vital for survival. In general, inflammation pathways are upregulated due to infection for example and then downregulated when the body is no longer under threat. There is a balance between the two.
It is known that certain lifestyle factors, such as smoking, stress6 and the Western diet7 can shift the balance towards excess inflammation. Age-related decline in immune function (immunosenescence) as well as age-related pro-inflammatory state (inflamm-aging) further tip this balance towards pro-inflammation1.
“Recent data have demonstrated that chronic inflammation exerts a strong influence on immune aging and is closely correlated with telomere length in a range of major pathologies”8. One of the suggested mechanisms is to do with oxidative stress; oxidative stress plays a major role in the physiology of inflammation. Telomere sequences are specific targets of reactive oxygen species, which can lead to damage6.
Can we modify factors that increase telomere attrition?
Several extrinsic factors have been incriminated in inflammation and premature telomere attrition as mentioned previously. Whilst it is still unresolved whether telomere shortening is the cause or the consequence of the pathogenic events underlying illness9, telomere length can be used as a predictive biomarker of premature aging2.
Combating Premature Aging
The passage below written by Sir M. Marmot in 201510 is the perfect way to begin this section of the article:
“A chess grand master (…) complained that he used to plan nine moves ahead. Now at his dotage he was reduced to five moves ahead. When he died, soon after, he was found to have (…) advanced Alzheimer’s in his brain. He noted a marked decline in his cognitive ability, yet he was still functioning at a level most of us could only dream of. The point is that if you start from a high level, even with the inevitable toll of age, you can still function at a high enough level (…) to flourish.”
Whilst telomere research is extremely fascinating and can give you a ‘reality check’ on your health, there is no magic cure for aging. Therefore, focus your efforts on living a healthy and balanced lifestyle at any age to flourish. To do so, here are some tips:
When looking at nutrition, we tend to look at correlations rather than causes, because clinical studies are extremely difficult to design. Majority of studies look at the associations between dietary patterns and prevalence of disease. The current literature suggests that high adherence to the Mediterranean diet (Fig.2), rich in antioxidants, fibre and vegetables, as well as seeds and walnuts, is associated with longer telomeres. Consumption of polyphenols and omega-3 fatty acids may also help maintain telomere length.
In contrast, a high consumption of sugary beverages, processed meat, and pro-inflammatory diets, such as the Western Diet7, is associated with telomere shortening.
Fig 2. Image taken from Touhy et al. (2014) on PubMed and is a schematic representation of how diet impacts chronic disease risk”7.
Several meta-analyses have now linked stress with shorter telomeres. Although the associations found were small, we know that stress is neither good for us nor is it pleasant. The Mental Health Foundation has put together a wonderful guide on managing and reducing stress that you can download here.
Whist social media often praises that ‘beast mode’ is best when it comes to exercise, current guidelines recommend a mixture of moderate, vigorous and strengthening activity to be done each week to reduce the risk of Type II Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, joint and back pain and some cancers.
The current recommendations in the UK are as follows:
- Do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity (e.g. brisk walk, cycle) OR
- 75 minutes of vigorous exercise (e.g. tennis, run) OR
- A mixture of both each week
- Do strengthening activities (e.g. gym, yoga) two days a week
- Spread physical activity across the week to reduce the periods of prolonged sitting
Studies on telomeres found positive associations between moderate physical activity and telomere length.
So here you have it, some more evidence on why it’s so important to nurture your body. Curious about your health status? LifeHub now offers telomere length testing and personalised advice by our anti-aging experts to help you flourish at any age. You can find more information here.
- López-Otín, C., Blasco, M.A., Partridge, L., Serrano, M. and Kroemer, G. 2013. The hallmarks of aging. 153(6), pp.1194-1217.
- Bär, C. and Blasco, M.A. 2016. Telomeres and telomerase as therapeutic targets to prevent and treat age-related diseases. 5, pp.1000.
- Navarro-Ibarra, M.J., Hernández, J. and Caire-Juvera, G. 2019. Diet, physical activity and telomere length in adults. Nutr Hosp. 36(6), pp.1403-1417.
- Hayflick, L. 1965. The limited in vitro lifetime of human diploid cell strains. Experimental Cell Research. 37(3), pp.614-636.
- Oeseburg, H., de Boer, R.A., van Gilst, W.H. and van der Harst, P. 2010. Telomere biology in healthy aging and disease. Pflugers Arch. 459(2), pp.259-268.
- Kaszubowska, L. 2008. Telomere shortening and ageing of the immune system. J Physiol Pharmacol. 59, 169-186.
- Tuohy, K.M., Fava, F. and Viola, R. 2014. ‘The way to a man’s heart is through his gut microbiota’ – dietary pro- and prebiotics for the management of cardiovascular risk. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. 73, pp.172-185.
- Jose, S.S., Bendickova, K., Kepak, T., Krenova, Z. and Fric, J. 2017. Chronic Inflammation in Immune Aging: Role of Pattern Recognition Receptor Crosstalk with the Telomere Complex? Front Immunol. 8, p1078.
- Wu, L., Fidan, K., Um, J.-Y. and Ahn, K.S. 2020. Telomerase: Key regulator of inflammation and cancer. Pharmacological Research. 155, pp.104726.
- Marmot, M. 2015. The Health Gap: The Challenge of an Unequal World. London: Bloomsbury.
- Mathur, M.B., Epel, E., Kind, S., Desai, M., Parks, C.G., Sandler, D.P. and Khazeni, N. 2016. Perceived stress and telomere length: A systematic review, meta-analysis, and methodologic considerations for advancing the field. Brain Behav Immun. 54, pp.158-169.
- Chief Medical Officer. 2019. UK Chief Medical Officers’ physical activity guidelines. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/physical-activity-guidelines-uk-chief-medical-officers-report
Rusne is a United Kingdom-based writer passionate about nutrition as treatment and prevention of illness. She is currently completing her Bachelor in Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Leeds, and has Research & Development experience in the reformulation of sugary soft drinks.
Apart from her studies, Rusne particularly enjoys cooking, travelling and exploring independent coffee shops.