the Science of Living Well: Telomeres

In simple terms telomere length is a genetic factor related to our general health. In fact telomere length is now recognized as a biomarker for predicting the timeline of our individual life expectancy. Shorter telomeres equal less life. The word “telomere” is derived from the Greek nouns telos meaning 'end' and merοs meaning 'part.'

Telomere regions function to prevent the degradation of genes near the ends of our 46 chromosomes. A chromosome is a single piece of coiled DNA and contains many genes. The entire genome has about 25,000 protein sequencing genes.

A telomere is a special region of repetitive nucleotide sequences or base pairs at each end of a chromosome. Telomeres consist of genes that protect the end of our chromosomes from deterioration or fusion with neighboring chromosomes.

Here’s another way to think of telomeres. They’re a collection of ring-like “caps” that function to protect the end of a DNA strand from being frayed, unraveled or worn out. For this reason telomeres have been compared in action with the plastic tips on shoelaces. Shoelace tips or 'aiglets' prevent the shoelace string from becoming undone.

Every cell (except red blood cells) contains a nucleus with genes and chromosomes. This is where we can find our personal book of life written in digital language as a genetic code. Chromosomes are made up of DNA molecules that are millions of bases long coiled up like a slinky.

When a cell divides the genetic material inside that cell needs to be copied by a process called DNA replication. During this process enzymes that replicate a strand of DNA are unable to continue replicating all the way to the end. This causes the loss of some DNA.

At birth we have about 10,000 telomeric base pairs but as we burn in the fire of time and due to continuous cell division, our telomeric sequences slowly disappear. At 5000 bases we begin to show evidence of old age. We lose functional lean mass, forget things, need cheaters to read, experience fatigue more frequently and don’t recover from exercise as quickly as we once did.

Losing telomeres is not cool. Unlike homeopathy, less is definitely not more.

When telomeres shorten we are headed in the wrong direction. When cells divide telomeres shorten and bad things happen when telomeres get shorter.

Each time a cell divides, an average person loses 30 to 200 base pairs from the ends of that cell's telomeres. So we’re talking about a slow gradual decline in telomere length that takes time to occur. Like a lifetime.

So what is the maximum life span of our species? 122 years. That’s how long Jeanne Louise Calment of France lived and she’s someone we know lived that long for sure. Unlike Methuselah (969) or Li Ching Yuen (256), her age was verified by experts who examined her birth records as evidence.

So if our maximum life span is well over a century potentially, why is the estimate of life expectancy in Canada for someone born in 2013 only 81.57? What happens to us? Why do so many of us die prematurely? What happened to those missing 40 years of love and joy? Do they just evaporate? No. Our cells divide, they get damaged, telomeres get shorter faster and nasty things happen.

There are plenty of other factors in life that create our diminishing return. Things like infant mortality, accidents, epidemics, plagues and wars. Fortunately for most of us born in a country with law and order, good sanitation and access to decent whole food, those factors aren't nearly as relative compared to living in Chad for example, which ranks lowest in the world for life expectancy at 49.07.

Be thankful if you live or were born in a land of prosperity and freedom. Like a place where clean water flows abundantly and crimes like rape and murder are relatively low. Such good fortune provides us with ideal conditions that predispose us from birth to the likelihood of living longer with better health. Hence the higher life expectancy estimates.

Other factors that help prolong life include living in a warm temperate climate isolated from the mob, walking 5-10km per day, speaking your mind, eating clean natural food and taking no prescription medication.

But in spite of such privilege, many of us ruin ourselves by eating the worst diet imaginable and physically moving less in one day than a three-toed sloth or garden variety slug. An important distinction must also be made between length and quality of life. Many of us will be kept alive far too long by the last ditch rescue efforts of modern medicine. Why does the Calvary always show up after the battle has been fought?

Enter Telomerase: Another “New” Miracle Pill?

Telomerase is the body’s natural enzyme that promotes telomere repair. It’s active in stem cells, germ cells, hair follicles and most cancer cells, but its expression is low or absent in non-reproductive cells, meaning most of our 100 trillion cells.

Scientists want to know why telomerase is repressed in most cells because if they can find a way to stimulate telomerase activity in somatic cells without screwing everything else up, as they have apparently done by genetically modifying our food, it’s theoretically possible to keep our cells alive for a very long time.

Here’s what telomerase does in reproductive cells. It adds bases to the ends of the telomeres as they shorten which keeps the ends of our chromosomes stable. Ultimately the rate of telomeric addition is equal to any telomeric subtraction so the net effect is immortal cells that never die. Imagine if we could harness or control this effect.

Do you want to live forever? Ask Dorian Gray. Or better yet watch the movie. His answer will surprise you.

Cells with genes that do not express telomerase gradually lose telomeric sequences as a result of incomplete replication. As telomeres shorten, cells eventually reach their replicative or Hayflick limit and progress into senescence or old age. Cells can divide only about 50 to 70 times, after which due to telomere loss, they become unstable and degenerate.

But here’s a key question that remains unanswered. Is telomere shortening the cause of disease, decay and death, or is telomeric loss simply an effect of cellular damage like age spots on the skin, caused by how we live and a complex array of environmental factors such as stress, oxidation, glycation, radiation, gravity and entropy?

Shorter telomeres are recognized as a cause of poor health and accelerated aging. Telomere length to some degree does reflect how well we’re taking care of ourselves, but even if we do a superlative job of self-regulation, our telomeres will still shorten.

Telomeric DNA is reduced more quickly when oxidative stress and glycation is constant and no willful action is taken to buffer, decrease or manage that stress. Glycation is a technical term for a kind of fusion reaction that occurs between proteins and sugars, especially fructose. Consuming lots of sucrose and fructose accelerates telomere loss.

Glycation causes lots of damage and tends to increase over time with age. It’s a haphazard process that impairs the function of living cells. Smoking, excess alcohol consumption and excess body fat all shorten telomeres faster compared to controls. Nature isn’t prejudice. Once we cross a certain biological line reality demands more of our telomeres as a toll.

Fact: Telomere loss occurs less rapidly as a result of intelligent stress management, meditation, fresh air, clean water, regular physical exercise and optimum nutrition. Are we surprised?

More on this topic...

the Science of Living Well: Life Extension
the Science of Living Well: Neuroplasticity
the Science of Living Well: Calorie Restriction
the Science of Living Well: Blue Zones

As always...Stay well and Live Free!