Aging is a natural process in life, one that is slowly occurring to every single human being on the planet. It’s not something to “fight” or be afraid of. However, the speed at which we age and the impact it has on our bodies can vary greatly individual to individual, and is worth trying to understand.
Which specific factors are most important for causing aging is still a topic of debate among researchers. It turns out that aging is an incredibly complex process from a biochemical perspective. That said, we have come to understand it much better in recent years. A landmark 2013 study in the medical journal Cell defined nine “hallmarks of aging” that characterize the aging process. Five additional hallmarks have been identified and added since. These “hallmarks” are biochemical changes that occur in all aging humans, and include things like mitochondrial dysfunction and DNA instability. Another hallmark is known as telomere shortening. What that is and how we can slow it will be the focus of this article.
What are telomeres?
In short, telomeres are structures found on the end of our chromosomes. A (very) quick primer on genetics and chromosomes: We all have 23 pairs of chromosomes for 46 total: 23 from one parent, 23 from the other. Chromosomes are structures made up of tightly-coiled DNA, and this DNA is the genetic code that contains the instructions for how our body grows, develops and functions.
Telomeres can be thought of as a kind of “cap” on each of the ends of these chromosomes, protecting our DNA from damage, destruction or other biochemical changes (as stated above, DNA damage or instability is another hallmark of aging!). This is crucial for maintaining proper cellular function, and for this reason the shortening of these telomere “caps” is considered a hallmark sign of aging.
Extending the ‘lives’ of our telomeres
First and foremost, we want to do the things we know are most important for taking care of our bodies generally, including maintaining a healthy diet, living an active lifestyle, getting quality sleep, managing stress, and developing meaningful relationships. It turns out these are also the most impactful factors impacting the length of our telomeres. The inverse of these habits, meaning insufficient sleep and exercise, chronic stress, etc have been associated with telomere shortening. Often the mechanism behind this is increased oxidative stress and inflammation. We need to keep inflammation low, as chronic inflammation can shorten telomeres.
What about other specific strategies? Most people reading this will likely understand how important diet, sleep, stress, exercise and social connections are for health. Is there anything else we can do in particular to help protect our telomeres?
There is data supporting omega-3 fatty acids (found in abundance in seafood, and to a lesser degree in some plants) protecting telomeres from shortening. A recent study, which was a “meta-analysis” summarizing data across multiple other studies, found that there does appear to be significant telomere lengthening from omega-3 fatty acids. This could very well be due to both their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. It’s best to consume seafood regularly as part of a healthy diet, particularly cold-water fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, tuna, sardines, etc. But for many people supplementation may be needed to consume significant enough amounts of omega-3s.
Another relevant nutritional approach is ensuring adequate levels of vitamin D, since vitamin D may reduce telomere shortening. This may be in part because of the relationship between vitamin D and regulation of inflammation.
Lastly, tocotrienols—a family of vitamin E compounds gaining popularity (for good reason)—may help protect telomeres through their antioxidant activity. There have been multiple studies showing this effect in cells, and one study in humans that showed a reduction in DNA damage from supplementing with tocotrienols. When people talk about vitamin E, they are typically referring to alpha-tocopherol, the most ubiquitous vitamin E compound in the body. But more recent research has suggested that tocotrienols may have more potent health benefits, and supplementing with alpha-tocopherol is likely unhelpful (and potentially harmful). Unfortunately, there are no great dietary sources of tocotrienols so these must be supplemented to gain benefit.
A caveat on lengthening telomeres: we don’t fully understand at this point all the implications of lengthening telomeres. And in fact, while we know that telomeres shorten over time and that this is a hallmark of aging, we also know that certain diseases are associated with longer telomeres. So with this in mind, we should not be blindly searching for any intervention that can lengthen telomeres. This is why I focused this article on lifestyle and supplement strategies that we have good reason to believe are generally healthful and also might protect our telomeres.
To be clear, no matter what you do, your telomeres will shorten over time. It’s part of the aging process—and we are all going to die some day! But there are still strategies and lifestyle behaviors we can implement to do our best to help protect our precious 46 chromosomes.
Andrew Graham is a board-certified Family Nurse Practitioner licensed to practice in the State of Arizona. He completed his Master’s in Nursing from Boston College after earning a Bachelor’s of Science in Nutritional Science from Brigham Young University. Before receiving his conventional training, he discovered and began studying functional and integrative medicine many years prior after dealing with health issues himself. Andrew is committed to thoroughly investigating patient’s health concerns in an effort to identify root causes, and then using the most effective combination of conventional and integrative modalities in order to optimize health and well-being. Particular interests include gut health, nutrition, blood sugar issues, hormonal imbalances and longevity medicine.