3D Rendering of chromosome with emphasis on the telomere tips

Telomere Function in the Aging Process

Genes are like the story, and DNA is the language

 that the story is written in.

Sam Kean

Imagine if we had the power to predict patient lifespan based on a snapshot of current health. Doctors could then use this information to make individualized recommendations to help you optimize your wellness, reduce the risk for serious illness, and lead a more fulfilling life at every age. While modern science hasn’t yet allowed us to precisely predict longevity just yet, we’re getting closer.

Now, forward-thinking physicians are using an important biomarker of aging, telomere length, to monitor patient health and make more informed treatment decisions and lifestyle recommendations. These insights can also help pinpoint risk factors and aid in prevention efforts for serious conditions such as heart disease. Ultimately, looking at telomeres can allow doctors to encourage behaviors that shape a more rewarding future for their patients. If you’re new to the world of telomeres, find out more about these powerful measures of health below.

What Are Telomeres?

Telomere health loss concept with loss of telomere length

Every cell throughout the body carries genes, which are unique to each individual person. These genes dictate what cells should do and when. Comprised of DNA, these genes are connected in strands known as chromosomes. Within each cell, there are 23 pairs of chromosomes. Telomeres are sections of genetic material located at the end of each chromosome.

Telomere Function | What Do They Do?

Telomeres function as a protective cap meant to prevent the fraying of chromosomes when cells replicate. Telomeres have a vast number of DNA sections included within them, but when cells divide, the telomeres become a bit shorter with each time. 

When they become critically short, telomere function becomes compromised, and they no longer possess the capability to protect chromosomes. Cells die as a result, which is a natural component of the aging process – but only when it occurs at a natural pace. Accelerated cell death caused by unusually shortened telomeres is linked to a number of health issues, which we’ll explore below.   

What Is the Link Between Telomeres and Aging?

Mature couple laughing outside near hiking trail

Because telomeres shorten each time a cell replicates, telomere length is an important biomarker of aging. In particular, the rate at which telomeres shorten could hold powerful insights into the pace of aging, and potentially disease. Accelerated telomere shortening, in specific, is associated with certain age-associated diseases, as well as reduced overall lifespan. [1]

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Telomerase, or the enzyme which replenishes telomeres, has the ability to add telomeric repeats to the ends of chromosomes. While this enzyme is present in certain renewing cells, such as stem cells, it is either extremely low or absent altogether in most normal cell types.

According to research, introducing telomerase, or a telomere repeat sequence, to the end of telomeres has been shown to extend cells beyond their normal finite lifespan of divisions. This ability to maintain cells in a useful state holds significant potential in terms of research and medical applications, though researchers have yet to tap into the full potential of the enzyme. [2]

Risk Factors of Shortened Telomeres

While telomere length decreases naturally with age, it is also believed to be affected by a number of other factors:

These factors are all likely to contribute to the rate of telomere loss. [3] In particular, smoking, poor eating habits, obesity, chronic stress, and other unhealthy lifestyle factors are linked to shorter telomeres. And, it’s therefore no surprise that shorter telomeres are associated with a lower life expectancy and increased rates of chronic disease. [4]

Indeed, shorter telomeres can unlock insights into specific diseases or disease risk within certain individuals. At least 5,000 to 10,000 Americans have conditions associated with shorter telomeres, but the prevalence could be far higher than that. [5] For example, shorter telomeres are associated with a higher mortality rate due to heart and infectious diseases. [6] Telomeres which appear to be shortening at an accelerated rate are also linked to the early onset of other age-associated conditions, including:

  • Heart failure
  • Diabetes
  • Osteoporosis
  • Increased cancer risk

Ultimately, older adults with shorter telomeres have three times the risk of dying from heart disease, and eight times the risk of dying from an infectious disease. [7]

While this news may seem grim, studying telomeres actually presents a huge area of opportunity to improve patient outcomes. Because telomeres are affected by many lifestyle habits within our control to change, identifying telomere length not only gives us an idea of the conditions for which we might be at risk, but it also gives us control to optimize our overall health and minimize the impact of aging. One powerful way this is done is through telomere testing.

What Is Telomere Testing?

test tube with blood sample for telomere test, biological age prognosis via blood test

Telomere testing is an assessment which gauges the length of telomeres. Currently, there are a few ways to undergo telomere testing, including web-based orders which can direct patients to local labs. Yet, one-time tests only provide one piece of the puzzle: the current length of telomeres. Further testing and monitoring are needed to paint the full picture of telomere function. Experts are performing tests at one, three, five, and ten-year intervals, but this timeline can vary significantly based on many different factors which make up a patient’s individual risk profile. [8]

Some doctors are already using telomere testing as a means of informing treatment decisions for patients with certain conditions. For example, a group of heritable conditions characterized by bone marrow failure and lung scarring are linked to significantly shortened telomeres. Johns Hopkins professors have begun measuring telomere length in populations with these symptoms and known genetic mutations linked to telomeres.

Their findings helped physicians uncover new insights about telomere defects, and in some cases, led them to explore different treatment options. Because patients with short telomeres may be more susceptible to side effects from procedures and medications, for instance, discovering shortened telomeres has prompted doctors to use less aggressive therapies for certain patients. [9]

Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that shortening telomeres don’t guarantee imminent disease, just as longer telomeres don’t mean a person will be able to avoid disease altogether. What these tests can do, however, is provide patients with an accurate insight into telomere status, which could serve as the wake-up call needed to kickstart a healthier lifestyle – no matter your age.

What Are the Best Ways to Safeguard Telomeres?

Mature couple exercising outside on urban sidewalk

A physician with insights into your individual patient profile will have the best advice for promoting healthy telomere function, and therefore helping you optimize your wellness at every age. With that being said, there are a few general guidelines which could help maintain optimal telomere length: 

  • Quit or avoid smoking: Smoking increases oxidative stress, which ultimately accelerates aging and telomere shortening. By some measures, the wearing of telomeres caused by smoking a pack a day for 40 years is equivalent to 7.4 years of life. Smoking cessation and avoidance are important not only for telomere length, but for promoting better overall health. [10]
  • Exercise regularly: Exercise can help to minimize excess body fat and expedite the process of waste elimination, which can reduce oxidative stress and help to preserve DNA, including telomeres. Athletes have been shown to exhibit elevated telomerase activity and reduced telomere shortening, compared to individuals who do not exercise regularly. With increased telomere stabilizing protein, people who exercise regularly may be able to enjoy a slower aging process and a reduced risk of age-associated diseases.  [11]
  • Maintain a healthy weight: Obesity has been linked to increased DNA damage, and BMI actually bears a strong correlation to the biomarkers of DNA damage regardless of a person’s age. In fact, the effects of obesity on telomere length appear to be even worse than smoking, with a telomere loss equivalent to 8.8 years of life in obese individuals. For this reason, maintaining healthy eating habits and exercising regularly are critical components of a healthy life. [12]
  • Follow a nutritious diet: In addition to long-term weight management, diet in itself may also influence telomere length. Researchers believe portion sizes, antioxidant-rich diets, and healthy protein sources are all important to promoting longevity and wellness. Each individual has unique dietary needs, so working with your physician can help you find the eating style that best fulfils your specific nutrient requirements. 
  • Control stress: It’s unrealistic to assume anyone can avoid exterior stressors altogether, especially for busy professionals, individuals with family responsibilities, and other people with demanding lifestyles. Yet, finding healthy ways to cope with stress may be important to avoiding oxidative damage to DNA, which could contribute to early onset of age-related health issue. If you feel as if you’re consistently stressed, talk to your doctor about healthy stress management practices. 

Should You Get Your Telomeres Tested – In Conclusion

The more you know about your health and your individual patient profile, the better informed you are for making the right decisions to promote wellness. The physicians at Cenegenics stand by this belief, which is why each patient undergoes comprehensive clinical testing at the conception of their program. This allows our wellness optimization specialists to uncover key insights into current health status, risk profile, and key biomarkers that help shape effective treatment decisions and lifestyle management recommendations.

If you’re interested in learning more about your DNA to better your health, don’t hesitate to contact your nearest Cenegenics location. Their physicians will help you uncover details about your health you’ve never been able to access before. Armed with this information, you can collaborate with your Cenegenics physician to make the most appropriate and beneficial choices that allow you to feel your best at every age.

Next Steps to Schedule Your Telomere Test

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About the Contributor

Rudy Inaba 
Global Director of Nutrition & Exercise

Rudy Inaba is Cenegenics’ Global Director of Nutrition & Exercise. He is a recognized fitness and sports nutrition consultant with nearly 15 years of experience in clinical exercise physiology and lifestyle management. After pursuing his Master of Science in Clinical Exercise Physiology at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, Rudy joined Cenegenics where he leads 20 clinical locations nationwide in their advancements in kinesiology, nutritional biochemistry, and their analyses of industry research & market trending.

Key Resources

This guide was produced with contributions from the following key resources: 

The Cenegenics Education and Research Foundation  

The Textbook of Age Management Medicine Volume 1: Mastering Healthy Aging Nutrition, Exercise and Hormone Replacement Therapy

Click to purchase

The Cenegenics Education and Research Foundation  

The Textbook of Age Management Medicine Volume 2: Mastering Healthy Aging Nutrition, Exercise and Hormone Replacement Therapy

Click to purchase

Textbook Authors:

Jeffrey Park Leake, M.D., CPT

Dr. Jeffrey Park Leake is a Partner and Director of Education at Cenegenics Elite Health specializing in age management and wellness. Having trained hundreds of physicians worldwide, Dr. Leake is also the Director of Education for the Clinical Strategies for Healthy Aging course at AMM Educational Foundation.

Todd David Greenberg, M.D., CSCS

Dr. Todd Greenberg is a practicing physician with a broad range of expertise, including wellness, exercise, sports injuries, and MRI of sports injuries. He is a Radiology Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Washington.

References

[1] Shammas, Masood A. “Telomeres, lifestyle, cancer, and aging.” Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care. Jan. 2011.

[2] A.G. Bodnar, et al. “Extension of life-span by introduction of telomerase into normal human cells.” Science. 16 Jan. 1998.

[3] Shammas, Masood A.; see above.

[4] Harvard Health Publishing. “Can this DNA test help predict your longevity?” April 2018. Retrieved from URL: https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/can-this-dna-test-help-predict-your-longevity

[5] Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Accurate Telomere Length Test Influences Treatment Decisions for Certain Diseases.” 26 Feb. 2018. Retrieved from URL: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/newsroom/news-releases/accurate-telomere-length-test-influences-treatment-decisions-for-certain-diseases

[6] R.M. Cawthon, et al. “Association between telomere length in blood and mortality in people aged 69 years or older.” Lancet. 1 Feb. 2003.

[7] Shammas, Masood A.; see above.

[8] Harvard Health Publishing; see above.

[9] Johns Hopkins Medicine; see above.

[10] Shammas, Masood A.; see above.

[11] Shammas, Masood A.; see above.

[12] Shammas, Masood A.; see above.

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