Ask the Pharmacist

Q) I have heard that keeping my telomeres long is the secret to my health. What are telomeres and is there any truth to this?

A) Telomeres are the structures found at the end of our chromosomes. They consist of a short DNA sequence that is repeated again and again (usually 3,000 or more times) and basically serve as a protective cap for the chromosome.

The most common analogy is that they are like the plastic tips at the end of a shoelace. Without this coating, shoelaces become more and more frayed until they can no longer do their job. In a similar fashion, without telomeres, our DNA strands become progressively damaged until the point that the cells they are a part of can no longer do their job.

How our cells age depend more upon the length of these telomeres than perhaps any other factor. Chromosomes are tucked inside every cell and carry our genetic information ensuring our DNA is accurately replicated every time a cell divides. But telomeres shorten every time a cell divides, and, when they get too short, cells lose their ability to divide. This means they are no longer able to renew the body tissues like your brain, blood vessels, heart (in short every part of your body) that depend upon them. A lack of cells in our brain can lead to cognitive decline and a lack of cells in our blood vessels can lead to hardening of the arteries and an increased risk of a heart attack.

There is a lot of exciting research going into this and it is looking like the shortening of these telomeres is certainly an important factor in aging and can probably even be used to predict mortality. The good news from all of this research is that telomere shortening does not appear to be an inevitable and irreversible part of aging.

Hundreds of studies from around the world have shown that telomeres apparently can lengthen as well and that simple, common sense changes to our diet, exercise levels and mental health are all that is needed to do so. None of these suggestions are particularly onerous and all have been linked to improved health for years offering proven benefits such as less chance of being diagnosed with disease or having more energy.

So, how does one lengthen one’s telomeres? Rather than generalizations here are some specific recommendations you can focus upon. Let’s start with sleep. Apparently telomeres need at least 7 hours of sleep a night and those who average 5 hours or less tend to have much shorter ones. When it comes to weight, it appears that telomeres don’t seem to care that much as long as it isn’t constantly fluctuating as happens when some people go on and off diets. However, telomeres do care about sugar intake.

In a 2014 study of 5,000 Americans, people who drank 590ml of pop daily had the equivalent of 4.6 years of extra aging (as measured by telomere length) while those who drank 237 ml daily showed the equivalent of roughly 2 years of extra aging. This link remained even when other factors such as smoking, diet, age and weight were canceled out. As well, telomeres like some types of exercise better than others.

In a German study published in 2015, resistance exercise such as weight lifting seemed to do very little for telomere length no matter how intensely the activity was pursued. However, two forms of aerobic exercise proved to double the length of telomeres over only a 6 month period.

One, perhaps not surprisingly, was high intensity interval training consisting of a 10 minute warm-up and then four alternating sessions of very fast and then easy running (each 3 minutes in length) followed by a 10 minute cool down. This was performed three times a week. Now that form of exercise is not a reality for many of us but the other recommendation is certainly “doable” for most of us. The other type of exercise that doubled telomere length was a 45 minute workout that involved light jogging or brisk-walking performed once again, three times a week.

Interestingly, exercise had twice as good an effect on telomere length on those people who described themselves as stressed and that extreme forms of exercise (such as marathoners) had similar telomere lengths to those who did more modest amounts.

It also turns out that our telomere length correlates to our mental health. In a 2015 study of 12,000 Chinese women, women who had been diagnosed with depression had significantly shorter telomeres than those who had never had such a diagnosis. A Dutch study seems to support this and went further in that their data showed that the more depressed a person self-reported themselves to be, the shorter their telomere length was. Depression is not the only aspect of mental health linked to telomere shortening unfortunately. The same holds true for people who struggle with anxiety, anger, pessimism and mindfulness.

On a positive note, performing activities related to meditation seems to grow telomeres. A 2013 study of 64 people with chronic fatigue syndrome found that those who learned the Chinese art of qigong (a practice that focuses on meditative movements and breathing) showed lower levels of fatigue and greater levels of telomerase (an enzyme whose production is involved with the lengthening of telomeres) after a four month period. A separate study that had people focus on their breathing and the flow of their thoughts (an activity that we generally refer to as mindfulness) showed similar positive results. Based on this, it is more than likely that tai-chi and yoga would produce similar results.

Telomere’s apparently love sources of omega-3 fatty acids in your diet (fish, seaweed, flax seed…) as well as the Mediterranean diet which is high in whole grains, vegetables, nuts and fruits. They are not so fond of white bread, saturated fats, alcohol and of course sugary food and drinks. Are telomeres the key to the fountain of youth?

I’m not sure I would go that far, but I’m also not completely sure that I would discount them either. Regardless, the tips listed above are all achievable (well maybe not the interval running) and make pretty good sense. For more information about this or any other health related questions, contact your pharmacist.