The Link Between Telomeres, Age and our Environments (Pt. I)

Everyone knows that DNA holds the keys to life. DNA determines everything about our being, right down to the color of our eyes or if we have a predisposed risk for certain types of diseases. DNA is packaged in neat bundles called chromosomes, which contain all the genetic information our cells need. Every cell in our body includes a complete set of chromosomes. And, at the tip of each chromosome, is a small cellular structure called a telomere. It’s a simple repeating chain of amino acids (TTAGGG).

Telomeres keep chromosomes from fusing with one another, which can cause cell mutations or other forms of cellular damage. But recent research into telomeres suggests that’s not the only reason they’re important. Their length could affect things like how fast you age or how susceptible your body is to cancer or other diseases.

Why does telomere length matter?

During cell division, telomeres serve the important function of safeguarding DNA. Instead of splitting up DNA sequences, chromosomes are divided at their telomeres. This means telomeres are shortened instead of DNA. It also ensures that each new chromosome is capped with telomeres, preventing it from interacting with others around it.

Our cells split continuously, which means telomeres are always getting shorter. It’s called telomere attrition, and it’s usually associated with aging. The older you are, the more your cells have split and the shorter your telomeres are. As telomeres shorten, your chromosomes become more and more vulnerable. Shorter telomeres aren’t able to protect DNA during cell division, which can lead to mutations and cell death. We see these problems manifest as diseases like cancer or Alzheimer’s Disease—conditions also correlated with age.

The link between telomere length and age has led many scientists to begin looking deeper at what this relationship means. Can protecting telomeres help extend our lifespans? Are telomeres the key to preventing age-related diseases?

Environment plays a role

While there’s clear and present evidence linking telomeres and age, there’s also surprising evidence that links environment to telomere length. Specifically, our environments can affect how quickly our telomeres shorten.

You’re probably well aware of the effect stress has on the body. Stress can make us sleep poorly, give us gut flare-ups, and even trigger autoimmune responses! But what you might not realize is that stress can also age you—up to six times faster than normal! How do we know? Because there’s evidence in the form of telomere shortening. Moreover, stress can also cause an inflammatory response, which also adversely affects telomeres. When the body releases cortisol (the stress hormone), your cells are unable to produce telomerase, which helps replenish telomeres after cell division.

If you’re living or working in a stressful environment, your telomeres are suffering. You might not be able to see them or feel them, but it’s likely your body is under duress. The stress-related problems you’re facing right now might be the tip of the iceberg—diminished telomeres may make you more prone to chronic disease in the future.

What else hurts telomere length?

As a rule of thumb, most things in life that cause cellular damage are also harming your telomeres. Exposure to carcinogens, poor diet, lack of sleep and more all affect telomere length. It becomes very hard to know exactly what’s affecting your telomeres because there are so many potential factors contributing to healthy (or unhealthy) cell division.

Here’s some food for thought. According to a groundbreaking study by NASA, the telomeres of astronauts who spent more than a year in space were measurably longer than those of a person living on earth. In fact, NASA’s study focused on twins—individuals whose DNA is as close to identical as possible! The most interesting part of the study is that after six months back on Earth, the astronaut’s telomeres shrunk back to normal. Early hypotheses for this phenomenon attribute the weightlessness and general atmosphere of space to having a positive effect on cellular health.

Telomeres are the key to unlocking agelessness

With telomere length so closely linked to health and age, it’s no surprise that countless studies have been launched to explore the links deeper. What we do know for sure is that maintaining telomere length for as long as possible will have directly positive benefits for our health and lifespan.

How do we keep telomere lengths long or help to preserve them during cell division? Early indicators show an emphasis on improving the body’s telomerase levels and reducing cortisol levels. To learn more about what you can do, read Part II of this series here!

Evan DeMarco

Evan DeMarco is a leading sports medicine and nutrition expert, published author, public speaker and frequent guest on television, radio, and digital platforms.

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