Telomeres in DNA

Our bodies say more than we know. They tattle about our past, present and future, in ways that we are only barely able to understand. And every one of the 37.2 trillion cells in our bodies join the conversation.

The blueprint for every body is held within the nucleus of each cell – in strands of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA.  And when we say that youthfulness is in your DNA, here’s what it means.

DNA strands have protective caps at the ends, which are akin to the plastic caps at the ends of shoelaces that keep them from fraying. These are called Telomeres.

Telomeres safeguard vital genetic information in the genomes by keeping the chromosomes from binding to one another and getting damaged. Without the protective telomeres the cells would age faster and die sooner.

Telomeres grow shorter, the longer you’ve lived

An important characteristic of the cells in our body is that they are constantly refreshing themselves by replicating.

Each time a cell copies itself, the telomeres get shorter. Eventually, they get too short to function well, causing our cells to age and lose their ability to function as they should.

In effect, telomeres act as the ageing clock in every cell.

If you’re scientifically curious, here’s a closer look at what goes on. Telomerase, an enzyme, keeps the telomere from wearing down too much due to division and replication. But as cells repeatedly divide, the telomerase cannot keep pace. Consequently, every time a cell replicates itself, the telomere gets shorter and a small portion of telomeric DNA is lost, causing cell aging. Eventually, the telomeres become too short to continue replicating and replenishing.

Telomeres tell biological age.

When telomeres shorten below a critical length the cells stop dividing and start dying. Essentially, when the telomeres get too short the cells stop reproducing, and they break down. This is known as cellular ageing.

Cells that reproduce more often, like those in skin, hair and the immune system, are most affected by telomere shortening. Shorter telomeres point to a higher incidence of illness and subsequent mortality rates.

As the telomeres get shorter, cell replacement slows down and cells die as a result of either one or both of the processes known as senescence and apoptosis.

Stathmin and EF-1a are biomarkers for telomeric dysfunction and DNA damage.  Expression of these biomarkers are related to ageing and age-related diseases.

Decrease in telomere length with age is a normal cellular process. But when it is shorter than average for the specific age-group, it points in the direction of a decreased lifespan.

Did you know that your lifestyle influences your DNA?

DNA is popularly thought of as some sort of prewritten script that dictates how we age and indeed how long we may live. Increasingly, however, evidence points to the effect of lifestyle factors on telomere length and hence longevity. Obesity, lack of exercise, unhealthy diets and smoking have been observed to increase the pace of telomere shortening. Stress and depression have an impact too.

An acceleration in this shortening is associated with the early onset of age-associated health problems – with the risk of coronary heart disease, heart failure, osteoporosis and cancer being many times higher. Mortality rate is also increased.

Tweaking the telomeres to slow ageing down

So if poor lifestyle choices speed up ageing, wouldn’t we then be able to slow it down by letting the good stuff happen? The good news is, we can. As preserving the telomeres has a direct bearing on health, cancer risk and pace of aging – some pointers towards reducing premature shortening are:

  • Exercise regularly, stay lean and active
  • Practice yoga and meditation to manage stress levels
  • Consume healthy fats such as those derived from nuts, fish and avocados
  • Include foods rich in Omega 3, like fish – tuna, salmon, herring, mackerel, halibut, anchovies, cat-fish, grouper, flounder. Or seeds- flax seeds, chia seeds and sesame seeds
  • Have vitamin C and vitamin E as well – black raspberries, lingonberry, green tea, broccoli, sprouts, red grapes, tomatoes and olives
  • Follow a Mediterranean diet containing fruit, vegetables and whole grain

Can we lengthen telomeres?

The answer is yes. Science lends telomere lengths a helping hand. An enzyme called telomerase can slow, stop or perhaps even reverse telomere shortening. Nobel Prize winning research – on the effect of telomerase on telomere length – explains how exposing human cells to telomerase could slow down cell aging, by inducing cells to start replicating again. Activating the production of the telomerase enzyme – which protects the ends of DNA strands – reverses telomere shortening.

Best of all, longer telomeres cause gene expression to change to a younger phenotype which makes cells function as though they were younger.

Treatments based on this research can effectively repair, restore and rejuvenate cell replication – turning back the hands of your biological clock. So although the mythical fountain of youth remains to be discovered, we may just be on the verge of new breakthroughs.

Medically Reviewed By: Dr. Amani

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