In 2009, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn received the Nobel Prize for Medicine for the discovery of telomerase and of the role telomeres play in the aging process. This revolutionary discovery regards the telomerase, an enzyme that nourishes and completes the telomeres, which are actually chromosome endings, playing the role of preserving the youth and integrity of the genetic material. Therefore, the length and health of telomeres are essential for the health and longevity of the human body.
As time passes by, we grow a little older, and become less and less vigorous, lively and energetic! We get more and more grey hair and wrinkles! But what are the roots of aging? Would the negative thoughts that we think be responsible for our growing old faster ? Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, Nobel Prize Laureate for Medicine and Dr. Elissa Epel, an expert on health psychology and studies on the relationship between stress, aging and obesity, try to find answers to these questions in their work “ The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Younger.
We usually do not think of telomeres even though they are part and parcel of the aging process that we are all going through. And cannot possibly avoid. The telomeres are DNA segments that end our chromosomes; their role is to prevent chromosomes from fraying or tangling with one another, which can lead to cell malfunction, increased risk of diseases and eventually shortened life spans. Whenever a cell division takes place, its telomeres shorten. Finally, when the telomeres become too short to divide, the cell becomes dysfunctional and dies. This happens in our body perpetually, being intrinsically linked to the process of aging – telomeres would signal out the instant that a cell dies. So the telomeres work in a linear way – when they shorten, this is a sign that we grow older; eventually, when all our telomeres become too short to be functional, and our cells die, without others to take their place, we will die too. But things are not quite like this, in the sense that man can still intervene, and act in such a way as to help telomeres lengthen. Does this mean that the aging process could be slowed down, or even become reversible? It seems so !
What is the relationship between telomeres and aging ? An elaborate study on telomeres proves their effect on a person’s health. Researchers gathered samples of saliva and medical records belonging to a batch of 100,000 people. The results of the study have shown that telomeres that were shorter than the average length were associated with an increased risk of mortality. The study has also shown that individuals with shorter telomeres, representing 10% of the batch, had a higher probability (of 23%) to die within 3 years than those with longer telomeres. The results were not so conclusive though. Scientists are still unsure whether the length of telomeres is just an indicator of growing old of the kind that grey hair or wrinkles are. They are uncertain whether it plays a major role in the health of a person with a severe illness like Alzheimer’s, or even in speeding up their death.
Telomerase, an enzyme that lengthens telomeres and keeps them from wearing out too quickly or too early. should also be taken into account. Given the constant division of cells, telomerase levels are depleted, which leads to telomere shortening. Should science find a way to increase the production of telomerase, telomeres would stay long, whereas the risk of disease would significantly lower. A 2010 study on the process of aging in mice, which was published in “Nature” seems to confirm this assumption. The mice whose telomerase was extracted, have grown old prematurely, and became decrepit. But as soon as the enzyme was replaced, they bounced back to a normal state of health. “The results of this study point to the active role that the telomerase plays in the anti-aging process,” states Ronald DePinho, the cancer genetics specialist who led this research.
However, there are still serious doubts about the role the telomerase plays in slowing down the aging process. Because it has been shown that telomerase really lengthens telomere in people who suffer from cancer, but, paradoxically, the same telomerase makes existing tumors grow faster. At this stage it seems that there is not enough evidence as to the beneficial, but equally harmful role played by telomerase.
One thing is certain though: the longer our telomeres, the better, even though the ways the telomere length influences the aging process are not all quite clear as yet. Consequently, that each one of us can make some changes in their own lifestyle to lengthen their telomeres, for the longer your telomeres, the younger you are inside. But first, we need to see what poor aging looks like.
In this respect, Dr. Michael Lam identifies 10 signs of poor aging, namely:
- Stained teeth (from too much coffee or cigarettes)
- Cracks in corner of mouth (standing for vitamin B deficiencies)
- Bleeding gums and periodontal disease (from lack of vitamin C, CoQ10 and bioflavonoids)
- Dry and flaky hair (from lack of B vitamins and essential fatty acids)
- Skin bruising (from lack of vitamin C, K and of bioflavonoids)
- Nails splitting and cracking (from lack of calcium, zinc, protein and fatty acids)
- Irregular heart beat (from caffeine and lack of magnesium and CoQ10)
- Pale tongue (standing for anemia)
- Constipation (from lack of fiber and digestive enzymes)
- Memory loss (that can be addressed by taking gingko and phospatidylserine)
Further on, Dr. Josh Axe enlarges the picture and gives us his 10 symptoms of poor aging that we would need to address, namely:
- Joint pain given by osteoarthritis or degenerative joint disease
- Chronic fatigue and bad sleep habits often caused by sleep apnea
- Chronic inflammation as the root of most diseases – related to leaky gut syndrome (as 70% of our immune system is found in our gut), but also associated with a large group of diseases like cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, periodontal disease, frailty and functional decline
- Brain fog caused by chronic inflammation and characterized by several symptoms including fatigue, irritability, concentration problems, forgetfulness, headaches, lack of motivation or else mild depression, anxiety and insomnia
- Weight gain due to factors like having a busy schedule that leaves little time for exercise, stress, lack of sleep, eating a poor diet
- Varicose veins that affect up to 50% of people over 50, mostly women with a highly sedentary lifestyle, who are also prone to a high risk of heart disease
- Skin and appearance changes due to the decrease of collagen and elastin in skin fibers as we age, and the resulting effects that include sun spots, patchy-looking skin, itchiness, wrinkles and general sagging
- Dementia in diseases like Alzheimer’s, closely related to unhealthy diet, inflammation, low level of exercise, gut health etc.
- Digestive issues related to slower digestion (which may lead to constipation), bacterial overgrowth in the microbiome, incontinence, diarrhea, diverticulitis, poor nutrient absorption, delayed drug metabolism, stomach ulcers, GERD, polyps and alterations in the immune system, being caused by medication usage (like NSAIDs), chronic inflammation and leaky gut. Poorly structured diet and smoking
- Hearing loss, closely related to genetics and oxidative stress, which can cause cell death (apoptosis) and cochlear dysfunction from the mitochondrial level
Poor aging can be struggled back and Dr. Axe gives us a hint as to how we can all slow down the process.
- Eat healthy, i.e. anti-inflammatory food containing antioxidants and vitamins as well as foods that support brain activity. Vitamin-rich foods protect our cells and telomeres from oxidative wear. A diet rich in antioxidant foods, such as berries and artichokes, can slow down the aging process by preventing or reducing cell damage. It is known that “unhealthy” aging is directly related to chronic inflammation, which means that our diet should contain anti-inflammatory foods: green, leafy vegetables, fruits and vegetables rich in antioxidants (think of filling your dish with the most colorful food), fish and seafood, good quality meats (organically fed animals), nuts, peanuts and seeds, bone broth, spices such as ginger or turmeric, healthy fats such as coconut oil. All foods high in vitamins like oranges, peppers and kale (vitamin C) or almonds, spinach and sweet potatoes (vitamin E) will grant longer telomeres and slow aging. Foods and inflammatory beverages that actually promote fast aging (e.g. all sweet, carbonated beverages are associated with shorter telomeres) should be avoided. Healthy fats are very important for brain health, so it is recommended to follow the ketogenic diet from time to time. Probiotic foods – fermented cheeses and beverages such as kefir or sour cabbage, which support the immune system, brain activity and a healthy digestion, should also be used. In addition to eating real, wholesome food, we should take a multivitamin supplement to answer to all our body’s needs, which ensures lengthening of our telomeres as well.
- Control and reduce stress. Research has proved that chronic stress is related to shorter telomeres. Thus, in a 2004 study, a group of healthy women who were mothers of healthy children (the control moms) was compared to a group of mothers with children suffering from chronic diseases (the stressed mothers). On average, it was found that stressed mothers had telomeres that were 10 years shorter than those of control moms. Therefore, the stressed mothers’ cells were a decade older than the control mothers’ cells. Another study, conducted on African-American boys, showed that those who came from disordered families and stressful environments had telomeres 40% shorter than those who came from stable homes. The conclusion? Chronic stress not only creates a bad mood, but also aggravates the aging process in a very real way. Regular exercise, getting enough sleep, eating healthy foods and carving out time for yourself have proved to relieve stress. Eliminating stress can also include yoga, healing prayer and meditation, acupuncture, spending more time in nature, and also surrounded by family and friends who love and support you.
- Exercise regularly. A recent study has shown that a person who does some kind of exercise is likely to have shorter telomeres – 3% less – than a person who does not do any exercise at all. So, the more exercises, the longer your telomeres. The correlation between telomere lengths and physical activity appeared more prominent in middle-aged people, suggesting that it is never too late to start a fitness program in order to prevent telomeres from shortening. Another study on how exercise keeps one’s cells young showed that middle-aged adults who were long-distance runners (running at least 72 km per week) had their telomeres 75% longer than their sedentary counterparts. Naturally, this does not mean that we must all become ultramarathon runners. It means, however, that engaging in intense regular exercise will keep our telomeres long and happy. It is certain that if you want to get old in a slow and healthy manner, you will have to avoid a sedentary lifestyle. So all we have to do is try to find our own activities and create habits that will ensure that our life is as active as possible. Regular physical activity, a lot of walking, or just moving around during meetings, breaks or phone conversations. A good idea for everyone is cycling because a study of 2015 in elderly people has shown that they have a much better metabolism, balance, memory and reflexes than those of the same age who lead a sedentary life.
To conclude with, we can certainly help ourselves and lengthen our telomeres in a natural way, even though science has not revealed all their mysteries and many questions remain unanswered in the field.