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What are telomeres and how do they affect aging

Telomeres are the protective caps at the ends of DNA. Think of them like aglets on shoelaces, preventing DNA from unraveling. Every time your cells divide, the DNA strands are shortened, shaving off the ends of the telomeres. When your telomeres run out, DNA gets damaged instead. This leads to cell mutations and death. When skin cells die, they make the surface of the skin dull and uneven, and it looks prematurely old. You can protect your telomeres (and your skin!) by eating foods high in carotenoids. High-carotenoid foods include fruit, vegetables, leafy greens, and beef liver.

dna strand breaking

What factors affect how our bodies age?

Two kinds of factors affect how our bodies age — intrinsic and extrinsic. Extrinsic factors are external influences such as diet and lifestyle. We know that we should avoid smoking, eat healthier, exercise more, and stay out of the sun. But even if we do all of these things, our bodies still grow older. That’s because of intrinsic factors caused by the natural processes inside our cells, which are harder to prevent.

Intrinsic aging processes cause dry, thin skin, fine wrinkles, and the gradual breakdown of our skin’s supportive matrix. However some people experience these symptoms far earlier than others. The rate at which your skin ages is determined by your genes. We know that cells stop regenerating after a finite number of divisions. This number is called the Hayflick Limit, and is different for each of us. But how can we find out what our number is, and is there any way of extending this limit? That’s where telomeres come in.

What are telomeres and what do they have to do with aging?

sneaker shoelaces

Telomeres are the very ends of chromosomes—think of them like aglets, the plastic tips at the ends of shoelaces. Chromosomes hold our DNA, but as our cells divide those DNA strands get shortened. Every new division strips another layer off our DNA. Ultimately, the DNA becomes too corrupted to function, and the cell stops replicating. That’s when we reach our Hayflick Limit.

Just like aglets hold shoelaces together and prevent them from unraveling, telomeres hold our DNA together. Instead of the DNA code itself being stripped away, part of the telomere is removed. This stops DNA from being damaged. So the longer your telomeres, the longer your cells can keep replicating.

Can we make our telomeres longer to prevent cells from aging?

Before scientists discovered the Hayflick Limit, it was commonly believed that our cells were immortal. Once we knew they weren’t, the race was on to find a way to lengthen telomeres and help us all to live longer. Researchers discovered an enzyme, telomerase, that can replace lost lines of telomeres. However telomerase isn’t available to all the cells in our bodies.

Tests on fibroblasts, a type of skin cell that doesn’t have telomerase, showed that when they were exposed to telomerase, they never stopped replicating. That meant that theoretically, if we could all increase our telomerase intake our cells could become immortal.

Unfortunately, our cells aren’t supposed to keep dividing without any checks and balances. When they do, it’s usually dangerous. Most of the telomerase in our bodies is found in two types of cells: reproductive cells and cancer cells. Around 90 percent of human tumors have active telomerase fueling their growth. 

While too much telomerase is definitely a bad thing, increasing our levels of telomerase a little can extend the time before our cells stop replicating. This can help regulate our natural cellular cycle, resulting in younger, healthier looking skin.

How to increase telomere length and delay signs of aging

healthy food

Now we know that the longer our telomeres are, the longer our cells can keep replicating, delaying the visible signs of aging. So how do we help protect telomeres from damage? Although most of our cells don’t use the telomere-building enzyme telomerase, there are other ways to support your telomeres.

Avoid oxidative stress

A study on the effects of oxidative stress on telomere length found a link between increased oxidation and shorter telomeres. Oxidative stress is caused by free radicals. These are unpaired electrons that get into our bodies through pollution, smoking, and processed, fried foods. While researchers are still figuring out the exact relationship between oxidative stress and telomeres, maintaining a healthy lifestyle is important for aging well. Getting antioxidants from your diet and skincare products is also a good way to combat oxidative stress. 

Try to eat fruits and vegetables in a rainbow of colors to get the most vitamins and minerals into your diet. What gives these foods their color are carotenoids. A study on the effect of carotenoids on telomere length found that higher blood carotenoid levels were associated with longer telomeres. Carotenoids are often found in high antioxidant foods such as tomatoes, carrots, squashes, and mangos. Look for any food with bright orange, red, or yellow hues.

To get even more antioxidants into your body, eat dark chocolate, nuts (especially walnuts and pecans), berries, leafy greens, plums, beets, and apples.

Eat omega 3s

fish oil supplement

Omega 3s are a family of fatty acids that boost your bodily processes and play an important role in keeping you healthy. Benefits of omega 3-rich diets include lowering your risk of heart disease, fighting inflammation, and supporting brain function. Research has found a link between increased omega 3s consumption, reduced oxidative stress, and longer telomeres. Our bodies don’t make omega 3s themselves, they have to come from our diet. Good sources of omega 3s include fatty fish and fish oils, walnuts, flaxseed and chia seeds. If you struggle to get enough omega 3s in your diet, fish oil supplements are a great solution.

Exercise regularly

There have been several studies on telomere length and exercise, and while the results are inconclusive, we do know that sedentary people have telomeres that are shorter. Scientists can predict how long or short your telomeres are, in relation to an average person of your age, by knowing how much or little you exercise.

That doesn’t mean that exercising itself is capable of lengthening your telomeres. However it’s a very strong hint that whatever happens to your body during exercise is great for you at a chromosomal level. We know this because the relationship between exercise and telomere length isn’t just accurate in general, but by predictable amounts. This suggests an underlying cause and effect relationship between exercise and telomeres.

Cut out sugary soda

soda coke

If you only make one change to improve your overall health, and the health of your telomeres, cut out soda. Researchers have discovered a relationship between sugar-sweetened soda and shortened telomeres in young, otherwise healthy adults. This correlation doesn't exist for diet soda or noncarbonated sugar-sweetened drinks. If you really need a soda or sugar kick, stick to diet drinks or sweet tea to protect your telomeres.

In conclusion

Inside all of us is a ticking clock that tells our cells when to stop replicating. We can delay this process by living a healthy lifestyle and getting more antioxidants and carotenoids from our diet. The tiniest changes at a cellular level can delay the onset of aging and help us all to live longer, healthier lives.

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