DNA researchers have discovered that our cells have a kind of counter inside them that measures their lifespan – telomeres. These are a kind of “protective caps” on the ends of DNA strands. Could they be the key to extending lifespan?
What are telomeres and telomerase
Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, who discovered telomerase, won world fame and a Nobel Prize. She compared telomeres to the plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces that keep them from unraveling.
Important term: Telomerase is an enzyme that synthesizes and restores telomeres, which can return them to their “young”, original length. This enzyme can compensate for telomere wear and tear. In humans, however, telomerase is active only during the embryonic stage of development. In adults, however, this enzyme is active only in relation to stem and germ cells, as well as some blood cells.
Telomeres protect the ends of chromosomes, where our genetic heritage is recorded. This DNA code is used, among other things, to transmit information to cells to produce certain proteins (hormones, enzymes, etc.) to ensure their proper functioning. According to Dr. Blackburn’s theory, the ends of the DNA can lengthen and thus inhibit the aging of the body.
Telomeres and aging
Researchers have found that telomere length is related to each person’s potential lifespan and helps determine the age of a cell. By the age of 80, telomere length is halved from birth.
Telomere shortening and telomerase activity, for example, scientists associate with the development of cancer and cardiovascular disease, as well as a decrease in immunity.
Many scientists believe that a person’s biological age we can determine by the length of their telomeres. Several laboratories around the world even offer such a service for a few hundred euros.
However, more recent research has refuted the idea that telomere length is a biological clock indicating life expectancy. Still, their shortening does correlate with the rate of aging and our susceptibility to infections. Especially when it comes to very short telomeres, linking it to the risk of degenerative diseases and cancer.
The length of the “protective caps” on our DNA can tell us about the level of oxidative stress, which can be corrected. In addition, a person’s lifestyle can tell us about the condition of telomeres.
Telomeres get shorter due to the following factors:
- unhealthy diet (excess sugar and omega-6 in the diet, eating processed foods);
- overeating and being overweight;
- environmental pollution (chemical, electromagnetic, sound);
- poor emotional and social relationships with others;
- sedentary lifestyle;
- lack of sleep;
- constant stress;
- chronic pain;
- insulin resistance;
- chronic inflammation;
- vitamin D deficiency.
All of these have a devastating effect on telomeres, regardless of a person’s age.
So why is telomere length a variable value that changes over the course of a lifetime?
In order for body tissues to regenerate, cells are in a continuous process of division. And our replication system (DNA doubling process) during each cell division cannot properly complete reproduction of chromosome ends and their “protective caps” wear out. Therefore, telomere shortening only progresses during life.
And when they stop protecting the chromosome, it breaks down during cell division. The cells then age and die as a result of apoptosis. Our body has programmed this “cell suicide”, but as we age, this mechanism becomes less effective, and some aged cells manage to avoid death. And they accumulate in tissues and organs, interfering with their functioning.
Perhaps it is the shortening of telomeres that explains why, after 50-70 divisions, most cells in the human body die. This limit is known as the Heiflick limit.
Is it possible to lengthen telomeres?
In the search for the keys to a long youth, a group of scientists suggested that activating telomerase would lengthen telomeres and automatically slow down aging. In 2010-2011, there were studies where activating telomerase in mice did make their telomeres longer. However, this experiment never answered important questions, which are “Does it apply to all of our cells?” and “What could be the consequences of this manipulation?”
According to scientific evidence, telomerase is very active in human cancer cells, which are almost “immortal”. And there is a possibility that exposure to it can cause cancer. To date, this topic requires comprehensive study.
However, there are already substances capable of activating telomerase:
- Low-dose aspirin. Some studies have shown that it can protect vascular endothelial cells. This effect is partly due to telomerase reactivation.
- Astragalus. This is a plant that people have long used in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine, particularly for the recovery of weakened people. Studies have shown that astragalus can act on telomeres and can cause them to lengthen slightly.
- Silymarin. This is an active ingredient derived from milk thistle, well known for its protective effects on liver cells. Silymarin is also considered a telomerase activator.
Important note: Telomere-lengthening substances probably affect some aging processes, but not telomere length directly. For example, these substances can reduce oxidation, which leads to telomere shortening.
How to slow down telomere shortening
Genetic manipulation and chemical extracts are not the only ways to lengthen our telomeres (or at least slow down their shortening) and thus give us a chance at longevity.
Scientific studies conducted on humans over several years have shown that telomere length can be strongly influenced by lifestyle. For example, scientists have observed that the group that leads a healthier lifestyle has a 10% longer telomere length than those who have not given up bad habits.
How telomeres can be maintained or lengthened:
- Avoid chronic stress. This is one of the most effective ways to prevent telomere shortening. One study showed that women who experience significant stress have telomeres so shortened that they correspond to being 10 years older.
- Follow a diet rich in omega-3 and vitamins A, C, E, B6, B9, B12. Antioxidant protection plays a decisive role here. The main thing is to avoid both deficiency and excess of these substances.
- Exercise regularly. According to a study published in Sciences Advances, exercise activates telomerase in white blood cells and lengthens telomeres. And their length can change as early as two hours after exercise. So, physical activity is a great way to slow down aging.
- Meditation with concentration on the feeling of love can also increase telomere longevity. Researchers from the Universities of Davis and San Francisco, California, found that regular meditation causes positive mood changes associated with increased telomerase activity.
Let us summarise the key points of the link between telomeres and aging process:
- Telomeres protect the ends of chromosomes, where our genetic heritage is recorded.
- They shorten over time, making us more vulnerable to cancer and cardiovascular disease, for example.
- What affects telomere length is not only or not so much age as unhealthy lifestyles and poor ecology.
- There have been successful experiments in the laboratory to lengthen telomeres by acting on a special enzyme – telomerase.
- However, the safety of telomerase activation has not yet been proven.
- Certain substances, both chemical and plant, can lengthen telomeres.
- It is also possible to slow down their shortening by changing your lifestyle.