Understanding Telomeres to Live Longer & Better! Q&A with Miles Price
In 2009, telomeres and telomerase (its corresponding enzyme) won three American researchers the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Since then there has been a flurry of work surrounding this seemingly redundant protein, that has now been touted as the secret to biohacking the aging process. We sit down with Functional Medicine Specialist, Miles Price, to figure out why this little protein is so important to our longevity and our health.
Q: What exactly are telomeres and what do they mean for health?
Telomeres are proteins called nucleotides which attach to the ends of DNA strands to protect them from damage every time the cells divide. They play a central role in the cell fate and aging. Each time the cell divides, some of the telomere sequence gets lost so the telomere cap shrinks. Eventually, when the telomere becomes too short, the cell will either self-destruct through apoptosis or go into senescence. Senescence is an arrested cell state meaning the cell is no longer functioning at 100%. This contributes to aging and puts the body at greater risk of developing abnormal cells like cancer.1
Q: What affects the length of our telomeres?
Getting older is a fact of life. However, the rate of how fast we age is controlled amongst other things, by our telomere length. These bits of proteins protect our DNA from damage every time the cells divide. Telomere length generally shortens with age however we can slow down the shortening largely with lifestyle interventions. Things which accelerate the shortening include smoking, pollution exposure, lack of physical activity, obesity, stress and inflammation.2-4 Skin aging is also affecting by shortened telomeres, however the interventions for maintaining skin health with telomerase interventions is still being investigated.5
Q: How can we protect telomere length?
Telomere length is greatly influenced by our environment and lifestyle. Through epigenetic influences we can help protect our telomeres by doing the following:
- Caloric restriction – time restricted eating or fasting up to a minimum of 3 days (with supervision).6
- Evidence suggests that dietary alterations can affect our telomeres. An example of this is restricting protein intake.7
- Take regular exercise, preferably high intensity intermittent training.8
- Increase antioxidants in the diet, typically from plant foods.9,10
Q: Can telomere damage be reversed?
A recent gene therapy study on mice consisted of inducing telomerase, the enzyme which slows down the biological clock by extending telomere length, was successful in increasing the lifespan by a further 24%.11 Whilst human trails are some way off, what we can do is consider some supplemental interventions together with lifestyle measures discussed earlier. NAD+ (Nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide) is a supplement which is a derivative of Niacin (vitamin B3), and it directly influences the lifespan of the cells and the way the cell ages. This is done by interacting with proteins inside the cell called sirtuins.12 Sirtuins stimulate various enzymatic processes inside the mitochondria and nucleus which help to protect the DNA and RNA from damage as the cell divides. As we age our NAD+ levels decline and thus the enzymatic activity of sirtuins declines also, therefore it is becoming increasingly important to consider supplementing with NAD+ as we age.
Q: What does telomere length mean for immunity?
As you age your immune system becomes weaker. How this affects you is dependent on many factors, like your diet, exercise levels, sleep patterns, and stress levels, for example. Typically our immune systems become slower to respond, the body heals more slowly from infections, and the ability of the immune system to detect and correct dysfunctional cells also declines. Key immune system organs play a role in this decline. The thymus gland located in the middle of the chest plays a central role in activating certain white blood cells to identify invaders or rogue cells. It shrinks with age due to free radical damage. This can be minimized by taking extra zinc and other antioxidants which protect against its shrinkage.13 Other influences on your immunity include caloric restriction. Research has demonstrated that if you fast for more than 3 days your immune system is given a real boost, by stimulating autophagy.14 This is the process whereby the body seeks out and removes old and senescent cells, thereby reversing aging in that short period of time. Caloric restriction for longer than 24 hours is best supervised by a doctor or functional medicine specialist who can monitor any adverse reactions you may have.
Q: How can you test your telomeres?
You can test your telomere length by conducting a blood test which isolates our DNA and measures telomere length using the qPCR method. This is the most popular method of assessment. As telomere length is heavily influenced by our lifestyle, it is recommended to repeat the test at regular intervals to track your aging progress.
1. Aubert G, Lansdorp PM. Telomeres and aging. Physiol Rev. 2008;88(2):557-579.
2. Zhao B, Vo HQ, Johnston FH, Negishi K. Air pollution and telomere length: a systematic review of 12,058 subjects. Cardiovasc Diagn Ther. 2018;8(4):480-492.
3. Kim S, Parks CG, DeRoo LA, et al. Obesity and weight gain in adulthood and telomere length. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 2009;18(3):816-820.
4. Shin D, Shin J, Lee KW. Effects of Inflammation and Depression on Telomere Length in Young Adults in the United States. J Clin Med. 2019;8(5):711.
5. Buckingham EM, Klingelhutz AJ. The role of telomeres in the ageing of human skin. Exp Dermatol. 2011;20(4):297-302.
6. Vera E, Bernardes de Jesus B, Foronda M, Flores JM, Blasco MA. Telomerase reverse transcriptase synergizes with calorie restriction to increase health span and extend mouse longevity. PLoS One. 2013;8(1):e5376
7. Shammas MA. Telomeres, lifestyle, cancer, and aging. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. 2011;14(1):28-34.
8. Werner CM, Hecksteden A, Morsch A, et al. Differential effects of endurance, interval, and resistance training on telomerase activity and telomere length in a randomized, controlled study. Eur Heart J. 2019;40(1):34-46. doi:10.1093/eurheartj/ehy585
9. Shen J, Gammon MD, Terry MB, et al. Telomere length, oxidative damage, antioxidants and breast cancer risk. Int J Cancer. 2009;124(7):1637-1643.
10. Prasad KN, Wu M, Bondy SC. Telomere shortening during aging: Attenuation by antioxidants and anti-inflammatory agents. Mech Ageing Dev. 2017;164:61-66
11. Whittemore K, Derevyanko A, Martinez P, et al. Telomerase gene therapy ameliorates the effects of neurodegeneration associated to short telomeres in mice. Aging (Albany NY). 2019;11(10):2916-2948.
12. Amano H, Chaudhury A, Rodriguez-Aguayo C, et al. Telomere Dysfunction Induces Sirtuin Repression that Drives Telomere-Dependent Disease. Cell Metab. 2019;29(6):1274-1290.e9.
13. Haase H, Rink L. The immune system and the impact of zinc during aging. Immun Ageing. 2009;6:9. Published 2009 Jun 12.
14. Antunes F, Erustes AG, Costa AJ, et al. Autophagy and intermittent fasting: the connection for cancer therapy?. Clinics (Sao Paulo). 2018;73(suppl 1):e814s. Published 2018 Dec 10.
Written by Miles Price, Functional Medicine Practitioner & Clinical Nutritionist
Miles did his initial training at Hawthorn University with an M.Sc. Holistic Nutrition. He followed this up with a professional accreditation to practice with BANT (UK) the British Association of Applied Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine in 2017 and subsequently obtained a Functional Medicine Diploma with Functional Medicine University in 2017. This was shortly followed by enrolling with the Institute of Functional Medicine on their practitioner program.