By Dr. Justin Marchegiani
Can your DNA predict your lifespan? Well, maybe partially! New research on telomeres, a structure found on the ends of our chromosomes, may give us a glimpse into our health and longevity.
The protective caps on the ends of our chromosomes are called telomeres. They protect our DNA similar to how the plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces keep the laces from unraveling.
Each time a cell divides, the telomeres shorten until they are too short to divide, at which point the cell’s lifespan is over. This is essentially how we age. The shorter the telomeres, the “older” you are on a biological level.
Babies are born with telomeres between 8,000 to 13,000 base pairs in length. Each year of life, we lose about 20-40 base pairs. So for example, at age 40 a person may have lost up to 1,600 base pairs from their telomeres.
The good news is that scientists have found factors that contribute to telomere shortening, and we now know ways to protect our telomeres and stay healthy as we age!
Telomere shortening may be expedited in those whose jobs put them in contact with harmful agents, like traffic police officers exposed to traffic pollution. Relative to telomere length of office workers, those who worked near traffic daily had shorter telomere length in each age group. The reduction in telomere length correlated to the number of years the workers were exposed to the pollutants.
Protect your telomeres by reducing your exposure to environmental toxins. If you still use household cleaning products or personal care products laden with chemicals and fragrances, this is your reminder to stop!
At home or at the office, consider investing in a quality air filter. See the air filters I use for myself and my family to filter out common environmental and household toxins like formaldehyde and other dangerous VOCs.
They say stress ages you, which rings true even on a biological level. In a study on women who felt chronically stressed, the difference in telomere length between the stressed women versus the control group was equivalent to 10 years of life.
Glucocorticoid hormones are released by the adrenal gland in response to stress. These hormones can reduce antioxidant protein levels, which can cause increased oxidative damage to DNA and accelerate telomere shortening.
Protect your telomeres by managing stress properly. Find what works for you: gardening, yoga, talking it out with someone trusted, meditation, journaling… whatever it takes to help you release stress is worth it–it could save you 10 years of your life!
Antioxidants reduce the rate of telomere shortening and can protect DNA from oxidative damage. In a study done on animals, eating less food kept the animals in a biologically younger state and increased their lifespan by up to 66%.
Protect your telomeres by reducing your serving sizes (most of us are eating servings that are much too large), or try intermittent fasting. Fasting has powerful anti-aging properties including inducing autophagy and helping protect your telomeres.
Smoking accelerates telomere shortening. One study found that the rate of telomeric DNA loss in smokers was an average rate of 25.7–27.7 base pairs per year. Those who smoke a pack of cigarettes daily lost an additional 5 base pairs. Therefore, as far as your telomeres are concerned, smoking a pack a day for 40 years causes a loss of 7.4 years of telomere length.
Protect your telomeres by saying no to cigarettes! If you are already a smoker, there are plenty of resources available to help you quit. If you’d like to work with me to help get through the withdrawal period, you can click here to talk.
Researchers have found that a person’s BMI strongly correlates with biomarkers of DNA damage, independent of age. Obesity is associated with increased oxidative stress and DNA damage, which may expedite telomere shortening. In fact, the effect of obesity may be even more severe than that of smoking, at least as far as telomeres are concerned. The loss of telomeres in obese individuals averages out to 8.8 years of life.
Protect your telomeres by eating a healthy diet and moving your body daily! You don’t have to be an elite athlete to move. Try a zumba class, beginner’s yoga, or even start with daily walks. A healthy diet is also correlated with healthy biomarkers. Choose organic foods, and consider trying a paleo or keto diet.
We are faced with choices daily–what to eat, whether to watch TV or take a walk, if we’re going to raise our cortisol by checking our email at 10pm or waiting til tomorrow–and these choices impact our health both short term and long term. It is my hope that with an understanding of the various factors that contribute to living a long, healthy life you feel empowered to make the best choices for you.