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Your DNA is located within the nuclei of your cells, where it’s bundled within structures called chromosomes. Each chromosome carries specific genetic information in the form of genes. As the cells in your body divide, your chromosomes need to replicate so that each cell contains a complete set of chromosomes in its nucleus.
At the ends of each of your chromosomes are stretches of DNA called telomeres. Telomeres help protect the ends of your chromosomes from damage or fusing with nearby chromosomes.
Keep reading to learn more about these tiny but important structures and why they could unlock the door to preventing disease and reducing the effects of aging.
Your DNA strands become slightly shorter each time a chromosome replicates itself. Telomeres help prevent genes from being lost in this process. But this means that as your chromosomes replicate, your telomeres shorten.
That’s where an enzyme called telomerase comes in. It’s found in certain cells and helps prevent too much wear and tear. This includes shortening of your telomeres. Telomerase does this by adding additional telomere sequences to the ends of your chromosomes.
Most of the cell types in your body don’t have telomerase. This means that most of your telomeres continue to get shorter over time.
Some people claim that telomere shortening is a major contributor to the aging process and development of disease. But no one fully understands the impact that telomere shortening has on our overall health.
A 2011 review suggests that markers indicating DNA damage and decreased telomere function increase with age. This could be significant: A 2003 study found a link between shorter telomeres and an increased rate of death from heart disease and infectious diseases.
But this study is nearly 20 years old and only involved 143 participants. More recent meta-analyses also suggest connections between shorter telomeres and coronary heart disease or certain types of cancer. Research into the link between telomere shortening and death is ongoing.
While it’s known that chromosome replication shortens telomeres, some experts believe oxidative stress can also shorten them. Oxidative stress refers to damage to DNA and other biomolecules from reactive oxygen species.
Reactive oxygen species are created by both natural cellular processes within your body and inflammation. You can also acquire them from your environment through things such as pollution, smoking, or alcohol consumption.
Over time, the damage to DNA and other biomolecules caused by oxidative stress may contribute to health problems associated with aging. Again, this is a fairly new area of research, so there’s not much definitive evidence.
Read our primer on oxidative stress.
Shorter telomeres are associated with an increased risk of cancer, though no one’s sure why. The specific cancers associated with shorter telomeres are:
In addition, one of the hallmarks of cancer cells is that they grow and divide rapidly compared to other cells. So, how do cancer cells not aggressively shorten their telomeres and die off?
Telomerase, the enzyme that reduces telomere shortening in certain cells, is reactivated or increased in more than 90 percent of cancers, found a 2016 study. Remember, this enzyme isn’t found in most cell types. But it seems that cancer cells are able to use telomerase to protect their telomeres, delaying their deterioration.
Based on this information, some new cancer treatments target telomerase to help destroy cancer cells faster.
Given the links between telomere shortening and disease, some people are now interested in finding ways to lengthen their telomeres. But is this even possible?
Research surrounding telomere lengthening is still very new. But so far, the results do show some promise. While it’s unclear if you can actually lengthen your telomeres, there are likely ways to slow down the shortening process.
For example, a small pilot study from 2013 looked at the telomere length of 10 men with low-risk prostate cancer. They were asked to make several lifestyle changes, including:
- following a healthy diet
- getting regular exercise
- managing stress through yoga and support groups
Compared to the 25 participants with low-risk prostate cancer who didn’t make the lifestyle changes, the 10 who did had longer telomeres five years later. Again, this was a very small study, and it only involved men.
However, this small study provides a foundation for more recent research surrounding the effects of diet, exercise, and stress management on telomere length.
Your diet may play a role in determining the length of your telomeres. A 2016 journal article suggests following a Mediterranean-style diet rich in antioxidants. Curious to try it yourself? Start with our ultimate guide to the Mediterranean diet.
A 2018 study involving more than 5,000 adults found that eating more fiber was linked to longer telomere length. This could be due to fiber’s ability to help control blood glucose levels. The investigators noted that higher blood glucose is associated with inflammation and oxidative stress. Both of these may cause additional telomere shortening. Try adding these 22 fiber-rich foods to your diet.
On the other hand, another 2018 study looked at the diet quality of older adults in Australia and telomere length….