You may have never heard of telomeres but, given their potential role in how long we live, they are worth learning about.
Telomeres are a hot topic in science. Top researchers are connecting them to ageing, health and even longevity. Their claims make for great headlines, but it’s a controversial topic. So, let’s look at the facts.
What exactly are telomeres?
They’re the caps at the end of each strand of DNA which act as protection for our chromosomes. Think of them like the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces. As we age, the telomeres become shorter and contain less coating. With the protective cap being compromised, the DNA strands become damaged. It’s just like how your shoelace can become frayed when it loses the plastic tip at the end. Each time a cell divides, the telomeres shorten.
A nice analogy is that telomeres are like a bomb fuse: when they get to a critical length, it’s kaboom!
Pharmaceutical companies are now desperately searching for drugs that are able to slow down the shortening of telomeres as we age and to protect DNA from the ravages of time. A drug that could do this would rake in big money. It’s become a modern-day search for the fountain of youth.
Putting aside the headline-grabbing idea of a ‘longevity pill’, what do we already know about how lifestyle can influence the rate of telomere shortening? Is there something we can easily do?
How inflammation is linked to ageing
Inflammation and oxidative stress are two factors that lead to faster rates of telomere shortening. Insulin resistance, a key part of metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, also elevates inflammation and oxidative stress.
Diet and lifestyle are also big players in chronic inflammation. This opens the door to show that the foods we eat can influence telomere length, and now we have research that confirms this.
In the first investigation of its kind, researchers looked at a number of studies that collected information on both dietary habits and telomere length of the participants. From a pool of 17 studies, several themes emerged. A Mediterranean-style dietary pattern and other diets high in fruits and vegetables were linked to a longer telomere length.
At the opposite end, diets that focused more on highly refined grains, processed meats and sugary drinks were pointing towards a shorter telomere length.
However, the quality of the data from the studies was quite mixed. Most of the studies used a cross-sectional approach, which means they only gave a snapshot at a moment in time of the participants’ diet and telomere length.
More robust studies would measure diet and telomere length repeatedly over a span of many years.
Making sense of it all
How do we make practical sense of this new research? Let’s start with what we do know. Diets rich in fruits, veges and whole grains are linked with a longer life and having lowered risk of chronic diseases.
The rope bridge connecting diet with telomeres is intertwined with inflammation and oxidation. If you eat a poor diet, the strands of the rope bridge fray and the bridge crashes down well before its time. But with a good diet, you’ll have a strong bridge that’s capable of bearing the load of what life throws at it.
Now, let’s say that telomere length turns out to be a dead-end alley in the search for the cause of ageing and disease. The implications for dietary guidelines don’t budge one bit. We know so much already about the key dietary patterns that are linked to good health. No need to tie your shoelaces in knots figuring out ‘why’; just eat good food and enjoy.