Telomeres: The Aging Process Between Our Cells and Our Selves

03/21/2011 02:42 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2011
  • Jay Williams, Ph.D. An acclaimed physiologist and medical nutritionist, author, and researcher.

The topic of telomeres and telomerase is not a new one. These "caps" at the ends of our chromosomes have a primary function of preventing the "fraying" of our chromosomes as our cells replicate. We have known for many years that as a cell ages, its telomeres become shorter. Eventually, the telomeres become too short to allow cell replication, the cell stops dividing and eventually dies. This is the process of aging.

However, the aging of our cells does not always match the chronological aging of our selves. A telomere test can measure the length of the telomere (TL) and compare it to your chronological age (cell vs. self). The test is not only a measure of cell "aging," but provides a measure of health, disease risk, and potential of the body to respond to drugs.

In addition to normal aging, telomeres can be worn down through an unhealthy lifestyle. For example, short telomeres have now been linked to a sedentary lifestyle, obesity, and a lower intake of certain nutrients (e.g., antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids). Furthermore, accelerated cell aging has now been found in many conditions of stress, including trauma exposure, major depression, and other psychiatric disorders.

The Key Players In The Telomere Story

Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn: Telomeres were first observed in the 1930s, and in 1978 Dr. Blackburn originally described their molecular DNA structure giving birth to the scientific conversation. In 1985 Blackburn (with her graduate student Carol Greider), discovered telomerase, the enzyme that increases telomere length and has other important functions promoting a cell's health. Blackburn (and 2 colleagues received the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for "the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase." Blackburn has continued to be a leader in advancing the science and training other scientists as well about this cell aging system.

Calvin Harley Ph.D. (and Greider) in 1990 showed that in human cells, telomeres shorten progressively over time. He was instrumental in demonstrating that telomere shortening is a cause for cellular aging and that telomerase (the enzyme) can prevent this action. Telomeres are now thought to be a "timer" on a cell's life.

Elissa Epel, Ph.D., a leader in the field of health psychology and behavioral medicine, pioneered research linking stress to immune cell aging. With Blackburn and Jue Lin, she showed that stress perceptions, as well as the actual stressful events or thoughts, are related to telomere shortness and reduced telomerase activity. In plain words, she proved that stress ages you at a cellular level.

Jue Lin, Ph.D., a research biochemist working with Blackburn and Epel -- focuses on using telomere length, telomerase activity and telomere capping measurements as biomarkers for aging, and aging-related diseases and conditions in clinical studies and trials. She assesses the role of telomere maintenance in health and aging.

These leaders in research have teamed up as Telome Health with a mission of -- "a commitment to a deeper understanding of telomere science and its implications and applications to improve the health of people worldwide."

The Really Good News

Although the old school of thought suggested that telomeres decline with age-end of story, multiple recent studies have now shown that TL can actually increase over time in humans. Unlike the rest of our DNA, which is generally the same throughout life, telomeres are unique in that they can be affected by telomerase (an enzyme that repairs and lengthens telomeres), lifestyle, and certain environmental factors. This "telomere mechanism of aging" is believed to have huge implications for human health.

In November 2010, a group of Harvard University researchers published results from a study in Nature. The experiment involved mice that were genetically engineered to lack telomerase. Without this protective enzyme, these mice only lived to about six months of age. With this information, the Harvard team took a second group of prematurely aging mice, and at six months, they turned on the telomerase gene. They encountered shocking results. For the first time ever, an aged state of an animal was reversed and the mice became young again. Yes, I know this is mice we are talking about, BUT in The Lancet Oncology in September 2008, Dr. Dean Ornish, along with Blackburn and Epel reported that "lifestyle changes can significantly increase telomerase activity and consequently telomere maintenance capacity in human immune-system cells." The most amazing conclusion to this study was that the benefits happened in just 90 days using no drugs. This shows us that the ability to change the course of our human telomeres does exist.

Established Science

Over 4,000 peer-reviewed scientific publications relate to telomere biology and aging or disease. Many of these studies establish both associations and causal links between short telomeres or altered telomerase levels and major diseases, and demonstrate the value of these "telomere tests" to monitor health status, disease risk, prognosis, and drug response. Telome Heath is working on a solution to bring telomere monitoring to consumers at an affordable rate.

What Can We Do Today?

The scientific community is working hard to unravel the answers to the complete telomere story. We have a Nobel Laureate and other top scientists bringing us new information everyday. Stay tuned. In the meantime what the studies have proven is that stress can trigger a host of health-related problems including shortened telomeres. Thanks to extensive research by Epel and colleagues, we now realize that the stressful event is simply the trigger -- whether or not there will be health consequences or accelerated aging depends on your response. You can modify your internal responses by changing your coping strategies, exercising in a stress-reducing zone, and having a "practice" or a stress prevention technique like biofeedback to ward off the negative affects of life stressors.

"Telomeres are the only part of the genome itself that can be changed by lifestyle choices, and hence telomere length measurements can provide valuable feedback on ones' disease risks and, potentially, the effects of lifestyle changes," stated Elizabeth Blackburn.

There are over 180 million people in the U.S. over age 30 -- and a growing number of them have an interest in actively managing their health. Telomere length as an overall health barometer will be an integral component in the personalized medicine revolution, which includes individualized lifestyle plans based on new health monitoring tools. It might just be that we are headed for a new blue zone of longevity and optimal health measured by the length of our telomeres.

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