Telomeres and Time: Here’s what you need to know about your biological clock

Telomeres have recently become a key area of attention in the media. Since the 2009 Nobel Prize was awarded research on telomeres, a concept that used to be relegated to discussion among scientists has become a lot more mainstream.

More recently, entrepreneur, scientist and bestselling author Dr. Elaine Chin authored one of Canada’s Globe and Mail’s Top 10 Best Sellers –Lifelines – unlocking the secret of your telomeres for a longer, healthier life – where she describes how to use your telomeres to maximize peak health. Even NASA has recently studied the telomeres of one of its astronauts Scott Kelly to understand how he aged in space travel and how that time in space affected these incredible indicators of cellular health called telomeres.

What’s the science on telomeres?

Telomeres are long stretches of repetitive sequences of DNA that act much like the protective aglets or plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces that stop those laces from fraying. Except that telomeres are on the tips of our chromosomes, not on shoelaces!

As our cells continuously divide with age, our telomeres get shorter. Once our telomeres reach a critically short length, our cells begin to enter an inactive state called senescence – a science word to describe the process of ageing. As you age, you accumulate more and more of these senescent cells.

The rate of telomere shortening can be slowed down by an enzyme that our body produces called telomerase. This enzyme’s role is essential to keep extending the tips of your telomeres – constantly keeping your DNA protected from being exposed. The problem is however that telomerase cannot keep up as we age. As a result, the more your telomerase stops functioning, the more it is unable to keep extending your progressively shortening telomeres – and your shortening telomeres cause your DNA to be exposed and begin to fray. Much the way your shoelace aglets expose your shoelaces when they fall off and your shoelaces begin to fray, your shortening telomeres expose your DNA to elements that cause it to fray and deteriorate leading your body into senescence and aging.

How are telomeres connected to aging and health?

Telomeres have been identified as the single most indicative biomarker to aging. What? There’s an indicator that tells us how well we are aging? Yes. Because telomeres shorten with age – their length is a powerful indicator of how our body is physically aging. As we all focus more on being healthy and staying healthy and doing good things for our bodies, our “biological age” also called “genetic age” can be a great indicator of how well we are taking care of our bodies. Being able to identify the length of your telomeres and comparing how your body is aging versus your actual chronological age can provide valuable insight about your health. Am I a 35-year-old with the telomeres and genetic stability of a 25-year-old, or am I a 35 year old with the telomeres of a 45-year-old?

How can telomere analysis make me healthier?

Slowing down the rate of telomere shortening could slow down the aging process in our body. Nobel prize winner and author, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn co-authored the book, The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer with Dr. Elissa Epel – spurring a ton of interest around what we all can do in our everyday lives to protect the length of our telomeres.

What can I do about my telomere length once I know it?

It is possible for a 35-year-old to have the telomeres of a 25-year-old and vice versa by boosting or limiting your body’s telomerase activity. A recent podcast, Telomeres and Your Health with Anti-Aging Expert, Jeff Grimm addressed how telomerase activity has been shown to be boosted by some simple everyday healthy habits such as:

  • meditation
  • low protein diets
  • good sleep patterns
  • and yes, you guessed it – exercise

But in the same way, behaviors that have been shown to limit telomerase activity thereby shortening telomeres include

  • sleep apnea
  • high stress levels
  • auto-immune diseases
  • and yes, you guessed it – fatty foods

Of those positive and negatives, meditation has been shown to have the most positive impact and poor sleep the most negative impact. That means that if you were to do only focus on one thing to help your body live a healthier life – meditate! And if you were to just stop doing one single thing badly to help your telomeres – focus on getting better sleep!