While some people can look at a person and guess his or her age – like the carnival barker who claims he can as long as you cough up a few bucks – there are numerous factors that go into determining how young or old somebody looks, and researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and others are heading some of the most groundbreaking studies.
Researchers there are looking to telomeres - the caps on the ends of chromosomes that protect DNA from damage - to determine how well a person is aging while looking for ways to slow or even reverse the aging process and protect against cellular degeneration caused by the shortening of telomeres which eventually breaks the links between cells.
Telomeres are tasked with protecting DNA from damage as cells divide and DNA replicates. When we’re young, our telomeres are longer and more durable. Over time, however, the telomeres become shorter, and while the shortening is a natural sign of cellular aging, when the telomeres become too short, chromosomes fray and cells can no longer divide.
Cell division is a necessary part of the production of new skin, blood and bone, so if cells can’t divide, skin cells can’t turn over as quickly, and it shows up as signs of aging. (Ref. 1)
But shorter telomeres and the slower cell turnover that result do not only show themselves through the aging process.
According to studies, the shorter the telomeres a person has, the higher the risk of conditions, including cancer, cardiovascular disease and premature death.
While some telomere activity is genetic, about half is linked to environmental and lifestyle factors, suggesting that there are things we can do to prevent the damage to telomeres – and the impact that damage has on our overall health.
Slowing the process
While Dolly, the sheep cloned in 1999, started her life with shorter telomeres, which served as a predictor for her shortened lifespan, for the rest of us, there are processes in place that help protect telomeres to prevent chromosomal damage.
An enzyme named telomerase is tasked with helping to expand the bases of telomeres, preventing them from wearing too much and preserving chromosomes. When we’re young, we have enough telomerase available to build up the telomeres. But as cells continue to divide, there is not enough of the enzyme to protect the telomeres from growing shorter, and the cellular aging process continues. (Ref. 2)
Telomeres, essentially, are like a built-in biological clock that triggers aging. But changes in lifestyle can make a big difference to the process.
Why wellness matters
Experts believe that smoking, a sedentary lifestyle and poor diet could be linked to the shortening of telomeres, but a 2013 study that appeared in the Lancet Oncology found that lifestyle interventions including diet, exercise and stress management could slow down the process of telomeres growing shorter, which essentially begins very early in life.
Conducted by scientists at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) and the Preventative Medicine Research Institute, the study focused on 35 men with prostate cancer, 10 of whom were asked to make lifestyle changes including eating a plant-based diet, walking for 30 minutes per day, five days a week and adding stress-reduction activities including yoga to the mix. (Ref. 3)
The telomere length of those who made lifestyle changes increased by 10 percent over the five-year period, while the length decreased by three percent for those who made no changes.
“Our genes, and our telomeres, are not necessarily our fate,” said lead author Dean Ornish, MD, a clinical professor of medicine at UCSF and founder and president of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute.
The study, authors say, was a breakthrough in the study of lifespan and chronic diseases, and offers another piece of a complex puzzle regarding aging, health and disease.
“Telomere shortening increases the risk of a wide variety of chronic diseases,” said co-author Dr. Peter R. Carroll, professor and chair of the UCSF department of urology. “We believe that increases in telomere length may help to prevent these conditions and perhaps even lengthen lifespan.”
And while Peter Pan stayed young forever in Neverland – and Dorian Gray gave eternal youth a shot – could telomeres be our own fountain of youth?
Researchers are beginning to look at ways to boost the enzyme telomerase as a way to protect the telomere end caps and maintain better cellular health.
A 2010 mouse study that appeared in the journal ‘Nature’ found that when they blocked the production of telomerase in mice, they quickly began to show their age, although they were able to bounce back just as quickly when the enzyme was reintroduced. (Ref. 4)
“What really caught us by surprise was the dramatic reversal of the effects, a near 'Ponce de Leon' effect, we saw in these animals," said Ronald DePinho, a cancer geneticist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School in Boston, who headed the study. “This has implications for thinking about telomerase as a serious anti-aging intervention.”
Some Comments from our Founder Warren Matthews
“This is a subject that I have a personal interest in and have been investigating it for the last couple of years. I have been doing some tests on myself and experimenting with different protocols. There is evidence that some nutrients can slow down the shortening of Telomeres. Some of these nutrients are quite sophisticated whereas others such as Omega 3 fish oil are readily available.
There is some scientific evidence that many of the ingredients that we already use in Total Balance can provide support for the health of your telomeres. We have been doing some research into possibly developing a new product to focus on telomeres as an adjunct to our Total Balance. No decision has been made at this point as to whether we will proceed. If such a product would be of interest to you perhaps you could let us know by sending an email to our customer relations team with the subject 'Telomeres'. We will then keep you in the 'loop' if we proceed with such a development. Thank you.”