At the end of your chromosomes or DNA strands, you have protective caps called telomeres (sort of like the plastic caps at the end of shoelaces). The length of your telomeres can tell you how fast or slow you’re aging, the strength of your immune system, as well as your risk of death and disease, including heart disease, cancer, dementia and more. Among people older than 60, for example, researchers have shown that those with shorter telomeres are eight times more likely to die from infectious diseases and three times more likely to die from heart disease. Although all telomeres shorten with age, an unhealthy lifestyle is linked to significantly greater telomere shortening. Researchers, such as Richard Cawthon from the University of Utah, believe that lifespan may be increased by as much as five to ten years by changing habits that impact telomere length. Here’s what you need to know:
1. Eat An Anti-Inflammatory, Antioxidant Rich Diet
Chronic inflammation, as well as oxidative stress (cell damage caused by free radicals), negatively impact health, longevity and telomere length. Eating foods that contain lots of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds helps prevent this kind of damage. This includes lots of whole, colourful fruits and vegetables (especially berries, cherries, plums, artichokes, apples, and dark green and orange fruits and vegetables), as well as nuts, seeds, beans, fatty fish (salmon, rainbow trout, sardines), herbs, spices, 100% whole grains, tea and extra virgin olive oil.
In terms of supplements, research suggests that vitamin D may improve telomere maintenance. I’ve been a long term supporter of vitamin D supplementation. In the Sister Study, a daily multivitamin was also linked to longer telomeres in women. In the Framingham Offspring Study, however, high blood levels of folate, possibly resulting from high folic acid intake, was detrimental to telomere health. As always, too much of any vitamin or mineral can be harmful to health. I don’t recommend high dose folic acid supplements and if you take a multivitamin, be careful not to consume too many processed foods with added vitamins. Lastly, if you don’t eat fatty fish at least twice a week, you should take a daily fish oil capsule. In a 5 year study from the University of California, San Francisco involving over 600 outpatients with stable heart disease, individuals with the lowest intakes of marine source omega-3 fats experienced the most rapid rate of telomere shortening, whereas those with the highest intakes experienced the slowest rate of telomere shortening.
2. Cut Sugar, White Bread, Unhealthy Fats & Processed Meat
While some foods slow aging, others hasten it. Research points to sugar, refined carbohydrates (like white bread), unhealthy fats (saturated and trans) and processed meats as being most harmful. Based on data from the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey involving over 5300 adults, drinking one sugar-sweetened soft drink daily could hasten aging as much as smoking. In another study involving almost 300 children and teens from Spain, white bread was the culprit. In a study from the National Institute for Health and Welfare in Finland, involving almost 2000 elderly men and women, a high intake saturated fat (much of which came from butter) was linked to shorter telomeres. Lastly, in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, over 800 adults filled out a 120-item food-frequency questionnaire. The only food item linked to shorter telomeres was processed meats (eating them once a week or more was enough to cause harm). Ingredients in processed meat that may accelerate aging include saturated fat, sodium, nitrates and nitrites, and iron.
3. Maintain A Healthy Body Weight
Based on research from St. Thomas Hospital in the UK, telomeres in obese women are significantly shorter than in lean women of the same age. This is not surprising. Fat cells are biologically active. They pump out hormones that increase inflammation in the body and cause oxidative stress. This causes telomeres to shorten, aging to accelerate, and lifespans to reduce. Do your best to keep your weight within a healthy range.
4. Stay Active & Reduce Sitting Time
An active lifestyle provides exceptional health protection, including the ability to slow aging considerably. Regular activity boosts immunity, reduces chronic inflammation and reduces stress – all of which play a role in telomere health. In a study from King’s College London in England, involving over 2,400 twins, those who were regularly active during leisure time had significantly longer telomeres (about 10 years younger biologically) than those who were inactive. How much time you spend sitting also matters. In a 6 month study from Uppsala University in Sweden, involving sedentary, overweight men and women, reducing sitting time resulted in significantly longer telomeres. Although the optimal amount and type of exercise for telomere health is still being determined, aim for a minimum of 30 to 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity each day. Break up sitting time with short bouts of activity as well.
5. Curb Alcohol & Cigarettes
Ever notice how people who smoke regularly and drink excessively look older than their age? Heavy drinking and smoking ages you at a cellular level. In a study presented at a conference of the American Association for Cancer Research, telomere length was dramatically shorter (about half as long) in those who consumed heavy amounts of alcohol compared to those who did not. In a study from London, telomere shortening caused by smoking one pack of cigarettes a day for 40 years was equivalent to the loss of almost 7½ years of life. Bottom line: don’t smoke and if you drink, do so only in moderation (one drink daily for women and two for men).
6. Get Some Shut Eye
Based on research from the University of Utah involving over 150 middle-aged to older adults, getting enough sleep (7 hours or more) and getting good quality sleep are both linked to longer telomeres. The older you are, the more significant this relationship is. Proper sleep helps repair telomeres and protects against damage caused by inflammation. Lack of sleep increases inflammation in the body significantly.
7. Don’t Worry, Be Happy!
The mind-body connection is extremely powerful. If you’re chronically stressed out, anxious, lonely or depressed, your telomeres are probably shorter. If you’re a long-term caregiver or have recently suffered a great loss, you’re also at risk. Stress hormones, like cortisol, damage cells and hasten aging. In a study involving healthy premenopausal women, those with the highest levels of perceived stress had telomeres shorter on average by the equivalent of at least 10 years of additional aging compared to low stress women. In a study from UC San Francisco, however, telomere shortening was less in high stress women if they exercised, ate well and got enough sleep. Good self-care really matters. Lastly, your social network is important, and based on a review of four studies, mindfulness meditation also benefits telomere health.