Newsletter #553 When it comes to keeping your cells and their genetic material functioning properly and not falling prey to cancer, telomeres — small structures that protect the DNA in your cells — play a central role.
The more researchers learn about these parts of the cell, the more they realize how complicated their roles are in the body and how vital they are to staying healthy. The findings have given rise to a small industry of marketers promising to help people revitalize their telomeres.
Is there any truth to their promises? That’s what we set out to find. . .
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The basic function of telomeres is to keep the ends of your DNA strands from shortening or undergoing harmful chemical changes every time a cell reproduces its genetic material and divides into two cells.
The telomeres are the protective cap sitting at the end of each DNA strand. Researchers have found that without telomere protection, the strand endings would shorten or could chemically link up to other strands in a reaction that could kill the cell.
Although telomeres were first observed in the 1930s, it was not until the 1990s that researchers realized their importance. And they’re still unraveling all the mysteries of telomeres.
“The biology of telomeres is extremely complex, and the more we discover the more we realize what remains to be discovered,” says researcher Paula Martínez, a Ph.D. who works at the Telomere and Telomerase Group at the Spanish National Cancer Research Center. “What surprises me most is the high number of factors we are finding that are essential to the preservation of telomeres and, above all, the precise coordination that is required between them all.”
Keeping DNA long enough
Each time a cell divides, the reactions that duplicate DNA, allowing each new cell to have a complete DNA copy, cannot be allowed to proceed all the way to the end of the DNA strands. Without telomeres as extensions of the DNA, genetic material at the very end of each DNA strand would be lost in the reproductive process.
The telomeres essentially form a terminal portion of the DNA strand that the new cell doesn’t need. By covering the end, part of the telomere is lost with each cell division but none of the essential DNA goes missing.
Thus, the telomere portion of a cell is reduced a bit with each division. Eventually, after cells divide multiple times, the telomeres become too short to allow the cells to reproduce. This leads to the typical situation you encounter when you age. Because of the loss of telomeres, fewer of your cells can multiply and your tissues can’t regenerate the way they could when you were younger.
In cancer cells, however, an enzyme called telomerase, which is not operational in most adult cells, becomes active and actually lengthens the telomeres. That’s why cancer cells can keep dividing uncontrollably and, until a tumor becomes deadly, can keep growing without limit.
Because of these circumstances, anti-aging researchers are intrigued by the possibility of preserving telomeres in healthy cells – to keep the cells younger and capable of regenerating – while eliminating telomeres in cancer cells in order to kill them off. If science can accomplish that, it will represent a true fountain of youth!
But not so fast: When scientists got into the nitty gritty of the functions of telomeres, they found that their theories about what these structures do were too simple. Telomeres do protect DNA. So far, so good. But the telomeres themselves are protected by what are called shelterins, six proteins that group together to “shelter” telomeres. Plus, researchers have found that other proteins have to be present in the cell to enable telomeres to do their part in aiding cell division.
The longer the better
All that being said, the research continues to show that the longer your telomeres, the longer your life expectancy.
Matter of fact, one reason women live longer than men is that they possess longer telomeres. And as people age, men’s telomeres shorten more quickly than do those of women.1
Too bad for us guys, because having longer telomeres not only reduces your overall risk for cancer, it also drops the chances of suffering from diabetes and heart disease. In fact, heart problems are even more closely linked to short telomeres than is cancer.
Ways to avoid short telomeres
The best strategy for keeping your telomeres longer is to avoid lifestyle patterns that threaten these crucial parts of each cell, and embrace good habits that help maintain them.
You’ve probably heard about the studies that show processed meats like hot dogs and luncheon meats can increase your risk of cancer. (I’ve mentioned this more than once.)2 Now new evidence gives this view even more support. A study of more than 800 people by epidemiologists at several universities shows that eating processed meat shortens telomeres. In this study, processed meat was the only food or beverage the scientists could positively identify as a telomere shortener.3
And research in China shows that, despite some “experts” who warn that taking dietary supplements is a waste of time and money, people who take multivitamins have telomeres that are, on average, more than 5 percent longer than folks who don’t take vitamins.4
Specific, individual vitamins and nutrients have also been connected with longer telomeres:
- A study of women coordinated at the London School of Medicine showed that those who got more vitamin D had longer telomeres.5
- A study of women coordinated at the London School of Medicine showed that those who got more vitamin D had longer telomeres.6
- An investigation of heart patients in California found that those who consumed larger amounts of omega-3 fatty acids had longer telomeres.7
As for taking high-priced supplements that are supposedly designed to fight aging by preserving your telomeres, I’m not sure they’re worth the cost. Basically, any antioxidant supplement that fights oxidation in your body should help keep your telomeres longer with the passing years.
The only research I’ve seen regarding the effect of herbs on telomeres indicates that a derivative of astragalus – the Chinese herb – might have a beneficial effect on telomeres. But even this has not been firmly established.8
Plus, I should add, if you’re concerned about your telomeres, you’d better not smoke or drink alcohol to excess. Both of those habits shorten your telomeres.
A daily telomere workout
For a reliable way to support your telomeres every day, research shows that possibly the best tool is exercise. A study co-authored by Elizabeth Blackburn, at the University of California, San Francisco — who won a share of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Medicine for investigating telomeres – shows that folks who get the most physical activity generally have the longest telomeres.9
The research demonstrated that the link between longer telomeres and exercise was most definitive in folks between the ages of 40 and 65, showing that as you get a little older, physical activity may make a crucial difference between severely shrinking telomeres and telomeres that hold on to extra, healthier length.
And if weightlifting is your thing, research in Finland found that resistance training can help offset some of the negative effects of shortening telomeres. The subjects of the study were people with insulin resistance – basically, prediabetes. Additional study is needed on a broader population.
Losing weight or keeping your weight down is also important for preserving telomeres. A five-year study that helped obese people take off pounds with a Mediterranean diet – which includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, fish and chicken – found the regimen helped keep telomeres from deteriorating.10
As you can see, what we are learning about telomeres offers plenty of ways for all of us to help keep them longer. And most of these tips are things we all knew already we should be doing.
More findings will come. This field of research is attracting plenty of attention. New information about telomeres and their effects on health seems to emerge every month. I’ll keep you updated from time to time about new discoveries focused on these tiny strands that can lengthen your life.