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Telomere length linked to longevity

Published February 16. 2013 09:03AM

While it's common to find kids who want to grow up quicker, it's even more likely to find grownups who want to age slower. It's as if we're all looking for some internal start/stop button to control our development.

If that's so, there's good news. Scientists, it seems, have found it. It's an element of your DNA at the end of your chromosomes called telomeres.

Since Saturday morning is probably not the best time to tackle the terminology inherent in understanding human biology, let's do what the University of San Francisco website suggests and consider shoelaces instead.

A shoelace can last a remarkably long time if a shoe is tied properly, but what's certain to accelerate the rate at which it ages?

The condition of the plastic caps at each end. Tear a plastic cap or lose it totally, and the shoelace frays.

Now think of the lace as DNA and the plastic caps as telomeres. The fraying creates biological aging, as evidenced through decreasing eyesight, an increasing waistline, aches, pains, graying hair, wrinkles as well as the increased incidence of stroke, diabetes, osteoporosis, dementia, arthritis, heart attack, and cancer.

So what can you do to keep your internal shoelaces as close as possible to brand-new?


Research highlighted in the Best Life Now section of the January/February issue of Health, for example, disclosed that subjects who supplemented their daily diet with 2.5 grams omega-3 fatty acids over a four-month period seemingly lengthened their telomeres. A previous study with subjects who had already suffered a heart attack found omega-3 supplementation reduced telomere shrinkage.

Similarly, research published in the December 2012 issue of the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition linked telomere condition to diet.

This research, performed in Helsinki, Finland using 1,942 adult men and women between the ages of 68 and 78, focused on how fruit, vegetable, and fat consumption affected the telomere length of the subjects' white blood cells. White blood cells play a pivotal role in your immune system's defense, fighting both infections and cell damage caused through aging.

For the men, consuming more butter was linked to shorter telomere length. The researchers postulated that the increased inflammation and oxidative stress created by digesting saturated fat were probably the cause.

For overweight or obese women, consuming more vegetables meant longer telomeres. For all men, eating more fruit had the same effect.

No explanation was offered for why vegetable consumption for men and women of normal weight and fruit consumption for women did not produce the same.

A 2009 study performed in Hong Kong linked tea consumption to telomere length. Researchers recorded such a difference between people who drank an average of three cups of tea a day and those who averaged a quarter cup or less that they estimated it equaled five years of life. While most of the subjects consumed green tea, the few who consumed black tea got the same advantage as well.

But most of the other older studies link exercise instead of foods to increased telomere length.

A 2008 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine used more 2,400 twins to establish that exercise had a direct relation to reducing shrinkage. Subjects who did a moderate amount of exercise what researchers deemed to be about 100 minutes of moderately intense activity a week had telomeres that looked to be more than five years younger than the group that exercised the least, about 15 minutes per week.

The super-exercisers, those who did at least three hours of moderate to intense exercise a week, possessed telomeres that looked to be nine years younger than the low-exercise group.

A German study examined serious runners in their 20s, serious runners in their 50s, and young and middle age people who didn't exercise at all. What the research conducted at Saarland University Clinic found was that exercise may be the best way to reduce telomere shrinkage.

While the sedentary middle-aged subjects had telomeres that were 40 percent shorter than the sedentary subjects in their 20s, that correlation didn't continue with the hardcore runners. The telomeres of the older runners, average age 51, were only 10 percent shorter than the runners in their 20s.

Better yet, when compared to subjects of the same age who didn't exercise, the older runners' telomeres were more than 40 percent longer.

Further research done at the University of San Francisco has reinforced that exercise helps telomere length while determining that stress negatively affects it. Prior to that, other UCSF research established that smokers and those who are obese have shorter telomeres when compared to nonsmokers and lean counterparts.

Eating properly, exercising regularly and with some intensity, avoiding stress, and eschewing cigarettes are so often given as keys to good health that I fear the advice loses its effectiveness. What's so helpful about the last few years of telomere research is that scientists can now prove that these positive habits positively affect the condition of chromosomes.

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