As you get older, your body will go through certain changes. Your eyesight will become a little less sharp, your hearing less clear, and your skin will develop fine lines and wrinkles. But what exactly causes aging, and what can you do to slow the process?
It all has to do with special structures called telomeres which are located at the ends of your chromosomes.
Keep reading to learn what telomeres are and how they are related to aging.
What Are Telomeres, Exactly?
You don’t have to be a molecular biologist to understand the basics of DNA and genetics. Deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA is the molecule that contains your genetic instructions – the instructions found in each and every cell in your body that you inherit from your parents. Your chromosomes are DNA molecules that carry the majority of the genetic material in your cells and they form a threadlike structure made up of proteins and nucleic acids.
Telomeres are the portion of repetitive DNA found at the end of each chromosome. These telomeres form a sort of protective cap at the end of each strand of DNA which help to prevent the DNA from becoming damaged. The problem is that, as cells divide, one cell turns into two identical cells and the telomeres become shorter and shorter with each replication.
Once the telomere reaches a certain cut-off point, the cell can no longer divide, and it dies off. This is the real cause of aging.
What Role Do Telomeres Play in Aging?
You can think of telomeres as the plastic tips you find on shoelaces – they protect the ends of the shoelace from becoming damaged. Unfortunately, these protective caps become shorter each time the cell divides and, once the cell can no longer divide, it becomes inactive and dies. The shortening of telomere lengths is the underlying cause of aging.
In young and healthy cells, an enzyme called telomerase adds to the length of telomeres which helps them from becoming too worn down. As the cells continue to divide, however, there is not enough of this enzyme to go around and so the telomeres start to shorten. The shorter the telomeres, the more the cell ages and the more severe the consequences of the aging process. Once the telomere becomes too short to be divided, the cell either dies or becomes cancerous. Shortened telomeres have also been correlated with an increased risk for chronic diseases.
You may be interested to learn that different species are born with telomeres of different lengths. Mice, for example, have much shorter telomeres than humans. Even within the same species, however, not all specimens have telomeres of the same length.
Humans with longer telomeres tend to live an average of 5 years longer than humans with shorter telomeres, though it is still unknown what dictates an individual’s telomere length to start.
This evidence does, however, suggest that finding a way to slow or stop telomere shortening could slow the process of aging.
Tips for Protecting Your Telomeres for Anti-Aging Benefits
While more study is certainly warranted, there is scientific evidence to suggest that telomere shortening is just one aspect of aging. It works together with things like glycation, oxidative stress, and chronological age to cause aging. But what can you do to slow this process?
Here are some tips for protecting your telomeres and your DNA against aging:
- Manage your stress. Chronic stress increases cortisol production in the body which also increases inflammation and speeds up the aging process. Taking a break to relax and do something you enjoy can work wonders for your stress and it will help slow the telomere shortening process to help keep you younger for longer.
- Get regular exercise. Regular exercise helps to boost telomerase production in the body in addition to reducing chronic inflammation and improving circulation. Studies have shown that increasing the amount of exercise you get is correlated with an increase in telomere length, particularly among those in middle age.
- Eat a healthy diet. Antioxidants are plant compounds that protect against free radicals and oxidative stress, so including antioxidant-rich foods in your diet can help protect your telomeres. Aim for a varied diet of whole foods including lean protein, healthy fats, fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and legumes for nutritional balance.
- Try meditation and yoga. Studies have shown that meditation and yoga can actually prevent telomere shortening, especially when combined with a healthy diet and regular exercise. There are many forms of yoga and meditation, so try them all to see which one you like best.
- Get plenty of sleep. Poor sleep – particularly chronic sleep deprivation – has been linked to inflammation, oxidative stress, and aging. Aim for 7 to 8 hours a night and try to improve your sleep hygiene by keeping your room cool, quiet, and dark for optimal sleep at night.
- Get your omega-3 fatty acids. A healthy diet, in general, is important for anti-aging but omega-3 fatty acids are particularly beneficial because they reduce the chronic inflammation that can cause your cells to divide more quickly, shortening your telomeres even faster. You can find omega-3s in fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines or you can take a nutritional supplement that contains DHA and EPA (two forms of omega-3 fatty acids).
- Make time for intimacy. A recent study shows that people who have sex at least once a week have longer telomeres. The correlation between the two is unclear, but having close friends and enjoying intimacy is beneficial for telomere lengthening and anti-aging in general.
There is no miracle cure for aging, but the better you treat your body the healthier and longer your life is going to be. While you can’t control your genetics, there are certain things you can do now to protect your DNA and your telomeres into the future. Follow the tips you’ve learned here to enjoy a long and healthy life. Best of luck!