How To Lengthen Telomeres

We all want to live longer, healthier lives free from chronic disease. Even though lifespans are now longer than they were a couple generations ago, the average American spends the last 17 years of their lives in poor health.

As we witness this with family and friends, many begin to search for ways to improve their health in the later decades of life. 

While there isn’t an anti-aging prescription that magically turns back the hands of time, telomeres may be an important biomarker of premature aging that reflects how our environment and lifestyle promotes, or slows, the aging process.

The good news is that a healthy diet and lifestyle promotes healthy aging at the cellular level.

This is exactly what we are going to cover in today’s article about telomeres  

  • What telomeres are
  • How telomere length relates to aging and disease
  • How to improve your telomeres with exercise, diet and other lifestyle tools

What Are Telomeres?

Telomeres are structures composed of a single DNA strand that together along with a group of proteins called a telosome, creates a cap to the ends of each chromosome.

These caps help to protect the DNA within the chromosome by preserving their integrity and maintaining genetic stability.

Telomeres are like the plastic caps on the ends of your shoelaces that prevent the fabric from unraveling. 

Telomeres are found on the ends of all chromosomes in all cells. Every time a cell divides, the telomere becomes a little shorter and when the telomeres get too short, they can no longer create the protective cap for the DNA.

This leads to cellular senescence, where the cell loses the ability to divide. These cells are sometimes referred to as “zombie cells” as they are there, but they have lost a lot of their function.

This impacts the function of the tissue and the ability of the tissue to repair itself. Cellular senescence also leads to increased inflammation

It’s no wonder that shorter telomeres are associated with aging and disease. The rate of telomere shortening correlates with the rate a person ages.

This is why measuring telomeres, such as in muscle cells or immune cells, provides insight into a person’s true biological age versus their chronological age, and why many are interested in preserving, or even lengthening their telomeres to improve their health and longevity. 

Research has uncovered an inverse relationship between age and telomere length, but lengths are extremely variable between people of the same chronological age.

Interestingly, telomere length is also variable in newborns and seems to correlate with the telomere length of the parents.

There are also some genetic links to having extremely short telomeres at young ages that cause some familial diseases such as pulmonary fibrosis, immunodeficiency, and enterocolitis and other syndromes.

Telomere Length And Disease

In general, we know that longer telomeres are associated with health and longevity, while shorter lengths are associated with aging, premature aging and disease. 

Shorter telomere lengths are associated with:

  • Cancer
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Chronic pain
  • Poor Stress response
  • Hypertension

Telomere lengths are largely influenced by the same lifestyle factors that correlate with chronic disease. Behaviors that decrease telomeres include a poor diet, smoking, sedentary lifestyle, high stress and exposure to toxins.

Telomerase is an enzyme that works to lengthen telomeres when present, but is also depleted with age, stress, poor lifestyle habits and cellular senescence. 

In contrast, a healthy lifestyle works to maintain, and even increase, telomere length and therefore reduce the risk of chronic disease and premature aging. 

Let’s dive into some of the ways we can use lifestyle to support telomere length.

Exercise and Telomeres 

Does exercise keep you young? Yes, there is significant research to support this. 

Higher levels of physical activity correlate to increased telomere lengths. Athletes typically have longer telomeres than non-athletes of the same age, suggesting that exercise is an antidote to aging. 

In a study of men and women in their 70s, those who were lifelong exercisers had higher aerobic capacities, better metabolic health and were biologically around 30 years younger than their chronological age, when compared to their non-exercising peers.

Most of the people in this study weren’t athletes or competitive in their exercise, they simply engaged in regular physical activity. 

Based on this study, and others like it, we know that exercise throughout the lifespan increases bone density, protects against dementia and other diseases and delays the shortening of telomeres. Exercise modifies DNA methylation and promotes a favorable, anti-aging, epigenetic expression

Beyond simply preserving telomeres, high intensity exercise has been shown to increase telomere length by five percent in as little as 6 months. 

Dr. Shippy’s exercise tips for telomere lengthening:

  • The best time to start is now and all movement counts.
  • Strength training exercise along with movement that increases your heart rate are both components of an anti-aging workout routine.
  • Low impact options and maintaining balance and agility are important as well, as we get older.

Diet And Telomeres

In addition to exercise, diet choices are another modifiable factor that leads to favorable telomere length. 

It’s not a big surprise that processed foods, sugary beverages and nutrient-poor diets lead to shorter telomeres. This Western eating pattern also plays a large role in the development of obesity and chronic disease. 

In a study in Spain of over 900 men and women with an average age of 68, they found that those who ate three or more servings of ultra processed foods per day had shorter telomere lengths compared to those eating less processed food. 

In a Korean study, those who ate a more traditional (Korean) diet composed of whole grains, seafood, beans, vegetables and seaweed, had longer telomere lengths compared to those who ate more refined grains, processed meat and sweetened beverages. 

Dr. Shippy’s diet and supplement tips for increasing telomeres: 

Since the modern diet contributes to faster aging, it’s important to decrease sugar sweetened beverages, ultra processed foods, vegetable oils and other inflammatory choices.  

 Foods to help preserve telomeres: 

  • Colorful vegetables and fruits
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Minimally processed fats such as extra virgin olive oil 
  • High-carotenoid foods like sweet potatoes, carrots and tomatoes
  • High polyphenol foods including coffee, green tea and blueberries
  • Omega-3 fats from salmon, cod, mackerel and sardines

The anti-inflammatory foods rich in fiber and antioxidants fit perfectly into a whole food Paleo template. Yet another reason that eating whole, unprocessed food that comes from the earth supports a long and healthy life. 

Supplements that may influence telomere length:

In addition to B vitamins, a good Omega (fish oil) and folate, I often recommend a few “Get Better with Age™ supplements. CoQ10 and MitoQ, Curcumin, a good multivitamin, magnesium and phosphatidylcholine. Other Lifestyle Tools To Maintain And Increase Telomere Length – NAD IV therapy. 

Stress is associated with telomere shortening because of its effects on hormones, how it reduces antioxidants and leads to oxidative damage of DNA. Studies found that meditation was helpful for maintaining telomere length.

The study was conducted in women recovering from breast cancer treatment and who were under stress. Those who practiced mindfulness-based stress reduction, through meditation and gentle yoga, were able to maintain their telomere length compared to the controls whose telomere lengths became shorter. 

We already know that lifestyle tools and strategies that reduce stress and support a relaxed nervous system state promote health and help to prevent chronic disease.

Pick what works for you and make it a regular part of your day. Some tools to consider are time in nature, meditation, deep breathing, journaling and other self-care practices. 

When we think of stress, emotional stress is what comes to mind first, however,  it’s important to note that physical stress, largely from exposures to toxins in the environment, also contributes.

Since exposure to pollution reduces telomere length, it also makes sense to avoid as much pollution and chemicals that are within your control. My blog provides extensive articles on just how to do this. 

A final therapy that is on our radar to improve telomere health and longevity is hyperbaric oxygen therapy. In a recent study, adults over 64 years old received pure oxygen in a hyperbaric chamber for 90 minutes five times per week. Over the length of the 12 week study, telomere lengths increased by 20 percent, equivalent to a 25 year reduction in biological age.

In addition, cell senescence, or “zombie cells” decreased by 37 percent. These astounding results provide us with a helpful therapy for increasing telomeres and improving health as we age. 

While the research on telomeres is certainly fascinating, it’s also a powerful reminder that much of our health is really dependent upon the basics: eating well, moving and relaxing.

Our cells are fragile and easily influenced by the world around us.

Our job is to create a nurturing lifestyle and environment for the body, and health, healing and longevity will follow.  

To learn more, click here and read “All About Telomeres – Functions and How to Keep Them Healthy”.