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What Are Telomeres? Can they Really Prevent Aging

Nobel Prize Winner, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn
March 25, 2014 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

Imagine being able to slow – and possibly even stop or reverse – the damage done by aging. It would be like having a Magical Fountain of Youth in your backyard. Except that in this case, the fountain is actually within your body, and you can access it. This might sound like science fiction, but I can assure you that it’s not. We now have the power to influence the aging process, and along with it, the ability to reduce our risk of developing the deadly diseases that go along with growing older.

The anti-aging revolution is being brought to you in part by microscopic entities known as telomeres. These are tiny “protective caps” on the ends of your chromosomes, the little rod-shaped structures that carry your genes and DNA. As you may recall, DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is the “blueprint” for cell division. Ideally, when cells are no longer able to perform their duties, they make exact copies of themselves to carry on after they die. If there is an error in a copy, you end up with a faulty gene that could put you at risk for serious illness.

The telomeres protect the chromosomes and DNA from those types of errors. But every time a cell divides, the telomere becomes shorter. And shortened telomeres are associated with a higher rate of error in cell replication, creating an increased risk of cancer, as well as  the diseases of aging and eventually death. Clearly, telomeres play an important role in the aging process. In fact, their role is so important that it would not be an exaggeration to say that telomeres actually define how you will age.

The best way to describe telomeres is to borrow an example from Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn (pictured above in a photo courtesy of the U.S. Embassy Sweden), who shared a Nobel Prize in Medicine “for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase” with two other colleagues for telomere-related discoveries in 2009. Dr. Blackburn describes telomeres as being similar to the plastic tips on shoelaces that protect the ends of the laces from fraying, except that in this case, they protect the ends of your chromosomes, as well as your DNA.

In a nutshell, this is how the aging process works. Telomeres gradually become shorter and shorter, until they malfunction or stop functioning altogether. Meanwhile, faulty cells die or start making bad copies of themselves, leaving you susceptible to all the things associated with aging – inflammation, frailty, cancer, neurodegenerative disease, and other conditions.

From my perspective as a practicing physician, the most exciting aspect of this news is that you now have the opportunity to shape the processes taking place in your body at the cellular level. Not only can you influence your life expectancy, but you can also alter the risk of developing diseases that typically occur later in life. Talk about a whole new ball game! And much of this is possible without prescription medicine or costly therapeutic interventions. In other words, you have the power to control much more of your genetic destiny than anyone thought possible just a few years ago.

The science involved in these discoveries is in its infancy, so there is much to be learned in the coming years. But even though we only have the tip of the iceberg right now, the implications are enormous. Here’s one example: Several years ago, researchers in England discovered that individuals who performed cardio-enhancing exercise for 40 minutes daily had substantially longer telomeres than those who did not work out. In some cases, the genes of those who exercised were as much as 10 years younger than the sedentary participants! Personally, I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t mind being 10 years younger. And that study only looked at one way to affect your genes. As you’re about to discover, there are more opportunities to alter your genes, using lifestyle changes, targeted supplements, and other techniques.

Taking Care of Your Telomeres

Clearly, one way to preserve your health and lay the foundation for a disease-free future is by protecting your telomeres. And although regular, moderate exercise – workouts consisting of at least 30 – 40 minutes of cardiovascular activity at least five days per week – is one way to do that, there are others, including learning stress management techniques, eating a nutrient-rich, whole foods diet, taking targeted supplements, and minimizing inflammation.

Five Ways to Keep Your Telomeres in Top Condition

In nearly every newsletter, I mention the importance of my Pillars of Health. Several of these pillars – including eating a whole foods diet, exercising moderately, managing stress, and taking appropriate supplements – are very important when it comes to maintaining telomere length. Remember, even though you can’t see your telomeres, keeping these tiny entities from being whittled down by stress, poor food choices, insufficient nutrients, or a sedentary lifestyle is up to you. There is no known drug or medical procedure that can correct damaged telomeres. And needless to say, bad choices like smoking, overindulging in food, alcohol, or drugs, and similar risky behavior are not recommended, either. The more you can do to protect your telomeres, the fewer signs of aging and disease you’re likely to experience.

Reduce Inflammation

You can see inflammation at work when you burn your finger on a hot stove. The skin turns red and swells a bit while the white blood cells take on potentially dangerous invaders like bacteria. As the burn heals, the redness and swelling disappear, new skin replaces the damaged version, and all’s well. In simple cases like this, inflammation solves a problem and goes away, as it should.

But as helpful as inflammation can be, there’s a down side, too. Long-term, whole-body inflammation is an all-too-common condition these days, brought on by many factors, including environmental toxins or a poor diet of processed foods and “bad” fats. Instead of a localized response when you burn your finger, low-grade, systemic inflammation sets up shop throughout your entire body and refuses to leave. It’s the same response that occurs when you cut your finger, but now it’s occurring throughout your whole body. Inside the body, the inflammation silently smolders, like a slow cooker, damaging cells and tissues, and taking a toll on your telomeres.

To make matters worse, you probably aren’t even aware of it because inflammation is very often silent. The symptoms may mimic another condition. Or an individual may be diagnosed with an inflammation-related condition, like arthritis, without realizing inflammation is involved. (Any disorder that ends in “-itis” — prostatitis, gastritis, or arthritis, for example — is inflammation related.) You may not even be aware that anything is amiss until catastrophe strikes.

Standard treatment for inflammation involves a steady diet of NSAIDs, non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory medications, like aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen. These popular pain-relievers are widely available, inexpensive, and doctors love to prescribe them, because they relieve symptoms of inflammatory conditions temporarily.

But NSAIDs are not for everyone. Many individuals, especially seniors, cannot tolerate these drugs. In fact, they are responsible for causing gastrointestinal problems that send more than 100,000 people to the hospital every year, and cause 17,000 deaths in the U.S. annually. Obviously, these medications are not as benign as you’ve been led to believe.

In my practice, I’ve found several better options that alleviate inflammatory symptoms without causing serious side effects. Curcumin is one example. Curcumin is the active ingredient in turmeric, the gold-colored spice best known for its use in curries. Research has shown that curcumin is as effective as cortisone for treating arthritis of all kinds.

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Chronic Inflammation Decoded

In addition, curcumin lowers cholesterol and improves circulation and digestion. Furthermore, studies looking at food preferences and disease have shown that people whose diets regularly include turmeric have lower rates of breast, colon, lung, and prostate cancer.

Hundreds of clinical trials have demonstrated curcumin’s ability to lower inflammation, making it an excellent telomere protector. And researchers point to repeated successes while using curcumin to treat arthritis, allergies, asthma, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other chronic conditions associated with aging. I suggest a daily dose of 500 mg as a good place to start, but you can take as much as 1,500 mg daily if necessary.

Supplementing with omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs) is another outstanding way to reduce inflammation and protect your telomeres. For more details on the benefits of omega-3s, please see the section below on supplements.

Manage Stress

During stressful or exciting events, your adrenal glands produce several hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol.  These hormones mobilize your body for fight or flight, so they can be lifesavers. But these days, the threats we face are complex and harder to escape than a rampaging mastodon. When the economy is tanking, home prices are on a rollercoaster, or your job is in danger of disappearing, fight or flight are not options. As a result, the stress hormones accumulate in your body and erode your health, including your telomeres.

Fortunately, there are some excellent stress management techniques available. Exercise is one, and, as I mentioned earlier, it has other, dramatic benefits for telomeres, so it’s worth pursuing. Another one of my favorite stress relievers is deep breathing, because it’s something anyone can do, anywhere, and it’s absolutely free! Deep breathing is an excellent way to banish stress, reduce stress hormones, and eliminate toxins. But it’s important to do it correctly. Deep breathing does not mean hyperventilating or puffing up your chest like an opera singer. Breathing from your abdomen — sometimes called “belly breathing” — is the goal.

Most of us practice what’s called “shallow breathing” throughout the day: the shoulders go up a bit and the upper chest expands a little. Shallow breathing will keep you alive, but it doesn’t provide much life-enriching oxygen. Belly breathing is just the opposite! In belly breathing, the abdomen expands, like a balloon being filled with air. (Put your hand on your tummy and try it right now! It may be a bit difficult at first, but you’ll get the hang of it.) Stretching the abdomen means the lungs have more space for oxygen. To exhale, simply contract the same abdominal muscles, forcing air out of the lungs.

Belly breathing helps calm the body and interrupts the cascade of cortisol before it can wreak havoc. Practice for a few minutes three, four, or five times a day, or whenever you feel overwhelmed by stress.

Another simple, effective way to reduce stress and protect your telomeres is with meditation. One of the simplest, easiest methods to learn is known as mindfulness meditation. Studies have shown that meditation supports healthy telomeres, and provides a number of other health benefits. Mindfulness meditation is easy to learn. There are thousands of online resources that you can access just by doing a quick internet search.

Eat Well

Scientists are just beginning to explore the relationship of diet and nutrition to telomere health. Preliminary findings show that eating a nutrient-rich, whole foods diet, like those in the Mediterranean diet, help not only with weight management, but also support telomere length.

Here’s one example: A newly published study in the International Journal of Obesity reports that participants who followed a Mediterranean-style diet (consisting primarily of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, good fats, and lean protein) actually lengthened their telomeres during the five-year-long study, and lost weight as well. In addition, researchers noted that those individuals with the longest telomeres when the study began had the best weight loss results. So protecting telomeres has an additional benefit of making it easier to lose weight.

Take Select Supplements

The omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs) are something I recommend to nearly every patient, but they’re particularly important to those interested in healthy telomeres and aging. Omega-3s help protect against everything from heart disease and stroke to dementia and even cancer. These fats are used to manufacture strong, flexible cell membranes, as well as provide a long list of other health benefits.

Now a recent study at Ohio State University has found that omega-3 supplements protect telomeres from everyday damage. As a bonus, another study found that individuals taking omega-3 supplements not only had longer telomeres, but also a reduction in inflammation. Furthermore, some participants even added length to their telomeres, essentially reversing the aging process at the cellular level! To my knowledge, this is a true milestone, and something no prescription drug can accomplish.

Finally, carnosine, a supplement I wrote about in an e-letter several weeks ago, has been shown to support healthy telomeres, and, in some cases even lengthen them. Carnosine is found in grass-fed meats, but supplements are widely available. Since carnosine also provides a number of other anti-aging benefits, it’s certainly worth considering as an addition to your current regimen. The recommended dosage is 500 mg daily.

There is a simple blood test that can tell you the length of your telomeres, which in turn reveals your biological age. Keep in mind, however, that while the telomere test might be accurate in terms of establishing your biological age, the results of the test are not considered definitive in terms of how long you will live. As I mentioned earlier, the field of genetic medicine is only getting underway, so there is still a great deal to be learned. Use good judgment and caution before paying for testing that promises more than it can deliver.

The second part of the medical revolution and the subject of next week’s e-letter involves a field known as epigenetics, a fascinating area that is proving you can have a tremendous influence on the genes your inherit. I hope you’ll check it out, because there are many steps you can take to override your genetic heritage and remain healthy for years to come.

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