What are Telomeres and Why are They Important?

February 23, 2018

What are Telomeres and Why are They Important?

Aging is one of the great mysteries of humanity. It’s something that we see people try to address on a daily basis – spending money on cosmetic products and procedures, investing in mental health, making dietary changes. These are examples of things that people are willing to do in trying to stave off aging. But are they misguided?

Not entirely, but we are beginning to learn more about the way that all of multiple factors impact aging at the cellular level. One such example is telomeres, and understanding the mechanics of telomeres could play a role in combating aging.

The Function of Telomeres
Telomeres are structures that appear at the end of our chromosomes, comprised of DNA. Some scientists compare them to the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces that keep laces held together. Telomeres keep the chromosomes from fraying or tangling together, which can lead to a variety of health issues. However, the thing about telomeres is that they aren’t immortal, and this is where issues arise.1

Our cells are in a cycle of constantly replenishing themselves, but each time a cell replicates, telomeres get a little bit shorter. Eventually, the telomeres get too short to actually split. This leads to cells aging, not functioning properly, and eventually dying. Because of this, telomere length is seen as a way to determine the biological age (not the chronological age) of a cell. Compare it to the rings of a tree trunk.

The consequences of telomeres shortening go beyond wrinkles or purely cosmetic markers of aging. Studies show that things that alter the length of telomere length are associated with both an accelerated pace of aging as well as several age-associated conditions.2

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What Impacts Telomere Length
The link between telomere length and biological age is important, as it gives us an insight into potential ways we can support telomere. Scientists have discovered that several different factors are associated with telomere length. These include:

  • Physical exercise

  • Lack of sleep

  • Genetic mutations

In terms of the mental health, advanced stress in general may be a potential cause. One study review showed that children who had difficult childhoods also had shorter telomeres. These included childhoods filled with violence, institutionalization and poverty.3

At this point, you may have a bit of a “chicken or the egg” question when it comes to telomere length. Are shortened telomeres a sign of aging, like graying hair, or are they a cause? It’s not clear yet, but studies show some potential ways to try and handle this issue.

Supporting Your Telomeres
Many healthy lifestyle changes have been associated with improved telomere length in studies conducted. Here are some of the most studied practices:

Antioxidant-Rich Foods/Vitamins: Oxidative stress is a major source of cell damage, including potentially damaging telomeres. As a starter, you may want to eat foods like berries and artichokes, which have high levels of antioxidants. These nutrients help mitigate the effects of oxidative damage. Another thing you may want to do is take a multivitamin. One study showed that women who took a multivitamin daily had 5% longer telomeres than those who didn’t.4

Physical Activity: A good workout can make you feel young again, but this is no coincidence. One study showed that people who do exercise were 3% less likely to have abnormally short telomeres than people who don’t exercise at all. Frequent exercise tended to lead to longer telomeres.

Stress Management: We mentioned before how stressful environments are correlated with shorter telomeres. While you can’t get rid of every stressful influence in your life, there are things you can do to help handle these issues. Seeing a mental health professional is a good starting point, but you can also utilize practices like yoga and meditation to help you stay calm. In fact, one study showed that women who practiced mindfulness meditation and yoga kept their telomeres at the same length. By comparison, women in the control group showed shorter telomeres over the study period.6

Supplementation: There are enzymes that play a supporting role in the health of telomeres. Telomerase is a perfect example. A naturally occurring enzyme, it lengthens telomeres while protecting them from shortening in the future. Supplements like Enzymedica’s Telomere Plus™ can help increase telomerase activity, potentially helping support telomeres and aging by association.* Studies in mice showed that mice lacking in telomerase aged prematurely, but became healthier when the enzyme was replaced.7

Telomeres in Review
There are still a few holes in the scientific evidence, so we can’t say with total confidence that improving your telomere length will lead to reduced effects of aging. However, as we learn more, it becomes clear that telomeres are impacted by many things we associate with aging.  Combined with understanding other mechanisms of aging, like oxidative stress, we may one day unlock the means to be healthier as we get older.

* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnosis, treat, prevent or cure any disease

  1. Blackburn EH, Epel ES. Comment: Too toxic to ignore. Nature. 2012;490:169-171.
  2. Shammas MA. Telomeres, lifestyle, cancer, and aging. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care. 2011;14(1):28-34. doi:10.1097/MCO.0b013e32834121b1.
  3. Coimbra, Bruno Messina et al. Stress-related telomere length in children: A systematic review. Journal of Psychiatric Research, Volume 92, 47 – 54.
  4. Qun Xu, Christine G Parks, Lisa A DeRoo, Richard M Cawthon, Dale P Sandler, Honglei Chen; Multivitamin use and telomere length in women–, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 89, Issue 6, 1 June 2009, Pages 1857–1863, https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2008.26986
  5. Loprinzi PD, Loenneke JP, Blackburn EH. Movement-Based Behaviors and Leukocyte Telomere Length among US Adults. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2015;47(11):2347-52.
  6. Carlson LE, Beattie TL, Giese-davis J, et al. Mindfulness-based cancer recovery and supportive-expressive therapy maintain telomere length relative to controls in distressed breast cancer survivors. Cancer. 2015;121(3):476-84.
  7. Bonora M, Wieckowsk MR, Chinopoulos C, et al. Molecular mechanisms of cell death: central implication of ATP synthase in mitochondrial permeability transition. Oncogene. 2015;34(12):1608.


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