Immortality has been sought after since time immemorial. Although it has yet to be achieved, it remains a driving force behind the sciences that are unravelling the mechanisms within our bodies that operate to keep us young.
So, while the deepest secrets of immortality continue to evade us, the science of healthy longevity is welcoming us with open arms and telomeres have proven to be one of the primary players in understanding the new science of life extension.
What exactly are telomeres? Telomeres are considered by many to be the body's "biological clock" and understanding what they are and their relationship to healthy longevity begins in the nucleus of cells where chromosomes make up our DNA.
Every cell in the human body houses a set of genes unique to that individual. These genes made of DNA are linked together to form long strands called chromosomes. Chromosomes come in pairs and at the end of each chromosome is a protective cap or helmet in place called a telomere.
Found at the extreme ends of chromosomes, these protective caps help to keep the chromosome from getting damaged as the cell divides. You can compare it to the seal/cap at the end of a shoestring. Without that cap, the shoestring is open to damage, the same way the chromosomes are when the telomere is too short or damaged in some way and not functioning properly.
Telomeres are synthesised by an enzyme called telomerase and both telomere length and telomerase are indicated as central players in the ageing process.
Telomerase has a protein part and an RNA part and studies done on mice showed mice that lacked this important enzyme became decrepit but when the enzyme was replaced, they bounced back to health.
Telomere shortening has been directly linked with cell division. Every time a cell divides the telomeres shorten and lose a bit of length. Once a telomere reaches the critically short stage, it is unable to protect the chromosome any longer and the cell dies off.
Accelerated telomere loss is associated with numerous chronic diseases of ageing. Malfunctioning telomerase is dangerous as well and linked to ageing-linked diseases such as cardiovascular/heart disease. In other words, healthy telomeres and telomerase are indispensable when it comes to maintaining the cell's life cycle.
Although no medical therapy has yet proven itself capable of fighting telomere shortening and the ageing that comes with it, lifestyle changes have proven they can help to prevent telomere shortening and stave off ageing.
Let's examine a few beneficial habits that, once adopted, can positively affect telomere length and thus our health and lifespans.
Healthy weight – Not surprising that weight plays a significant role in telomere length since obesity and excess weight are triggers for oxidative stress. Oxidative stress in turn opens the door to DNA damage and is likely what triggers telomere shortening and a reduction in lifespans by a decade or more!
Diet – What you eat matters and the amount you eat matters. It seems that eating less is proving to add more to the anti-ageing effect. Experiments done on rats revealed that a reduction in calories consumed significantly reduces oxidative stress and thus helps to avoid DNA damage. Therefore, a reduction in calories helps the body to remain young for a longer period by reducing telomere shortening.
What you eat and don't eat can either work to help preserve your telomeres or work at damaging and shortening them. According to studies, eating antioxidant rich foods and those rich in omega-3 fatty acids (antioxidants) slows and prevents telomere shortening while eating junk food does the opposite.
A fibre rich diet is also proving beneficial to maintaining long telomeres. For the best results, stick to Mother Nature's bounty and enjoy as many local fresh foods as possible.
Exercise - Men and women who are physically active have longer telomeres than those who are sedentary. At least two sessions of muscle-strengthening activity per week is the minimum with any other challenging activity added as part of an overall active lifestyle.
It's easy to see that stress is a connecting link in all the above lifestyle habits, directly affects telomere length and releases hormones that block the anti-ageing proteins in the body. It's this excessive oxidative stress that causes telomere shortening and affects telomerase activity, so stress relief is mandatory when it comes to nurturing your telomeres and extending your years!
The bottom line is this:
Shorter telomeres are associated with lowered life expectancy. They open the door to chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and dozens of others. Our daily habits are key and play a huge role in our health and our longevity.
Unhealthy ones such as lack of activity (a typical sedentary lifestyle), smoking, a processed food diet and chronic stress are all major players in the game called life and will not only influence how well our body operates while alive, but how long it stays alive!
• Carolyn Hansen is co-owner of Anytime Fitness.