Most aging adults are in search of the fountain of youth, longing to hang onto smooth skin, mental acuity and fluid joints for as long as possible. They are not alone in this search. Researchers hoping to better understand the aging process are taking a good hard look at one aspect of the DNA chain and whether nutrition can play a role in preserving it.
Telomeres and Aging
Telomeres are the repeated DNA sequences found at the ends of linear chromosomes that protect DNA from damage during replication. Many experts liken telomeres to the caps at the ends of shoelaces, which protect them from fraying.
Each time a cell divides, the telomere portion of our DNA gets slightly shorter. Overtime, this shortening is linked with aging; the shorter the length, the older our age. Eventually, after a cell divides countless times, the telomeres become too short to sustain cell life (1).
Scientists are unsure whether telomere length is a sign of aging, such as gray hair, or whether it is actually a cause of aging. In one study, individuals over the age of 60 with shorter telomeres were three times more likely to die of heart disease and eight times more likely to die of infectious disease than those with longer telomeres (1).
To unlock the mysteries of telomeres, researchers have begun to investigate telomerase enzymes, which are said to block telomeres from getting too short by adding bases to the ends of telomeres. Over time, telomerase declines in a cell and telomere length shortens. To this point, cancerous cells, which divide quickly, make more telomerase, preventing their telomeres from shortening and causing cells to live longer (1).
Researchers theorize that if there was a way to create constant amounts of telomerase, we could preserve length of telomeres and slow down the aging process. When tested in the lab, scientists were able to prevent normal cells from dividing without becoming cancerous.
Geneticist Richard Cawthon from the University of Utah has conducted studies on telomere length, and determined that when individuals are divided into two groups based on this length, those with longer telomeres live an average of five years longer (1).
Another study connected physical activity to telomere length (2). In a 2008 study, inactive men and women were divided into two age groups of young and old. The results were that moderate activity was not detrimental to telomeres, however high levels of physical activity in highly trained athletes correlated to shorter telomeres.
Nutrition and Telomere Length
Astragalus is said to boost energy and provide support for the immune system (3). There is some evidence that a substance produced by this plant (TA-65), when used at low levels and purified, “turns on” the telomerase and helps maintain telomere length (3).
Some supplement companies are selling this ingredient as a standalone supplement or in combination with other nutrients also linked to telomere length. Vitamin D is known to benefit the immune system and have a positive correlation with telomere length (4). Some research suggests broccoli seed extract enhances the body’s tolerance to stress, a factor in aging (4). Meanwhile, a third nutrient aiding telomere length is rhodiola, which has often been used for cellular protection and to help the body adapt to and resist physical, chemical and environmental stress (4).
Another nutrient said to support telomere length is magnesium. A 2013 study showed a correlation between low dietary and plasma magnesium and a higher risk for cardiac arrest (5). Numerous other studies have shown that individuals of all ages with higher levels of magnesium have far less risk for illnesses and/or premature death. Both DNA and RNA are dependent on magnesium to maintain stable replication (6). Although there is no direct link between magnesium and telomeres, optimal levels of magnesium promote health and prevent the risk of life-threatening illnesses (5).
Results from a 2007 study revealed that high blood levels of omega-3s were linked with having longer telomere length (7). A later six-month pilot study found a greater reduction in telomere shortening in older individuals with mild cognitive impairment given EPA (400 mg) and DHA (160 mg) compared with those that didn’t take the supplement (8).
Last, carotenoids have also been studied for its connection to telomere length. According to data collected in the 1999-2002 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), “blood alpha-carotene, beta-carotene (trans+ cis) and beta-cryptoxanthin were significantly associated with 1.76%, 2.22% and 2.02% longer telomeres, respectively…telomere length increased from 5-8% in the highest carotenoid quartiles.” (9).
Published in WholeFoods Magazine July 2016
1. University of Utah, “Are Telomeres The Key To Aging And Cancer?” http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/chromosomes/telomeres, accessed Mar. 30, 2016.
2. A.T. Ludlow and S.M. Roth. “Physical activity and telomere biology: exploring the link with aging-related disease prevention,” J. Aging Res. (2011).
3. M. Kendrick, “Anti-Aging Pill Targets Telomeres at the Ends of Chromosomes,” Aug. 17, 2009, www.scientificamerican.com/article/anti-aging-pill-targets-telomeres, accessed Mar. 30, 2016.
4. Enzymedica, “Telomere Plus Increases Telomerase Activity,” http://enzymedica.
com/products/telomere-plus-telomerase-activity, accessed Mar. 30, 2016.
5. R.A. Passwater, “The Magnesium Factor: Longevity—Live Longer and Healthier with Magnesium,” 38 (4) 44–47 (2015).
6. C. Dean, The Magnesium Miracle (Ballantine Books, New York, NY, 2006).
7. R.A. Passwater, “Omega-3 Fish Oils: The Greatest Nutritional Health Discovery Since Vitamins, Part 4: The Major Studies,” 33 (9), 52–55 (2010).
8. “Omega-3 Fatty Acid Supplementation Reduces Telomere Shortening In The Cognitively Impaired,” Oct. 22, 2013, Life Extension Update, http://www.lifeextension.
com/newsletter/2013/10/omega-3-fatty-acid-supplementation-reduces-telomere-shortening-in-the-cognitively-impaired/page-01, accessed May 13, 2016.
9. “High Carotenoid Dietary Intake Increases Leukocyte Telomere Length,” press release distributed March 1, 2016 by ExcelVite.