Does Telomere Length Matter?
It’s debatable whether length matters when it comes to some things, but not when it comes to telomere length. When it comes to telomere length it is indisputable that longer is definitely better. Telomere length is an excellent prognostic biological marker of aging, disease, and morbidity. Short telomeres are associated with premature aging, more illness, and earlier death.
Telomeres are repetitive strands of DNA at the end of our chromosomes. Each time a cell divides (like it must do from time to time) the telomeres that cap the ends of our DNA get shorter and shorter. You can think of telomeres as a wick in a burning candle. Once the wick gets too short the flame goes out, and the same is true with our cells. Once the telomeres get to a critical short length cells lose their ability to divide and either die or become senescent. When enough cells in the body reach this point we die.
Enhancing Telomere Length
Until now we knew that healthy lifestyle habits slowed the rate at which telomeres shorten, but a recent study in The Lancet Oncology of men with untreated low grade prostate cancer showed that adherence to certain lifestyle changes could actually increase telomere length. In this pilot study (the lead author is Dean Ornish, MD who previously discovered that lifestyle changes can reverse heart disease) two groups of men with untreated low risk prostate cancer were studied. One group was required to make lifestyle changes and the men in the other group did not make any changes to their lifestyles. Both groups of men were followed for five years.
The lifestyle changes required by men in the first group included the following:
- Eating a whole foods plant-based diet.
- Moderate exercise.
- Using stress management techniques like meditation and yoga.
- Developing a stronger support system and greater intimacy.
Lifestyle Change and Telomere Length
Men who were required to make the lifestyle changes saw their telomere length increase by 10%, while men who did not make the lifestyle changes saw their telomeres decrease by 3%. It was also discovered that the more men adhered to the lifestyle changes the more their telomere length increased.
Larger trials are necessary to verify the results of this pilot study, but the results are encouraging. It is known that stress is a bigger contributor to telomere shortening than being obese or being a smoker, thus the importance of stress management and coping skills.
The study did not address whether or not lifestyle changes in men increased the length of other things (for those of you with a sense of humor), but I suspect it does not based on my study of one person.