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‘Telomeres’ may sound like some kind of futuristic portal into space, yet they’re actually teeny tiny structures found inside cells that provide vital protection for your DNA. Needless to say, they’re pretty crucial.

Scientific interest in the subject of telomeres has risen dramatically in the last few years, and 2009 Nobel prize winner, Professor Elizabeth Blackburn has published a whole book on the subject. If you’re interested, ‘The Telomere Effect’ will tell you all you need to know.

Here we take a super quick look at what they are, why you need them and how you can protect them.

Telomeres are sections of DNA found at the ends of each of your chromosomes. Much like the plastic tips on shoelaces, or the lid on a pen, telomeres keep the ends of your chromosomes safe by forming a cap. Without telomeres, chromosomes would end up sticking together and important DNA would be lost every time your cells divide.

As much as they are important to us, telomeres don’t last forever and they get shorter every single time a cell divides. When the telomeres become too short, they can’t protect chromosomes properly, cells can’t renew and they stop working. This leads to physiological changes, which increase the risks of health problems such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, poor immune function and unhealthy ageing. The end result of ageing cells is an ageing body and many scientists now believe that telomere length is an accurate indicator of biological age.

Telomeres will naturally shorten with age, and there’s no getting round this to some extent, however there are external factors that accelerate this process and this is where you can step in and help to protect them.

Here’s how to protect your telomeres and support healthy ageing:

1. Nurture healthy habits - Oxidative stress is one of the main factors that contribute to telomere shortening, and levels of this are increased through unhealthy dietary and lifestyle habits such as poor diet, smoking and stress so it’s crucial to take action to nurture healthier habits if you want to protect your telomeres and support healthier ageing.

2. Move more - A new study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology has found that elderly women who have less than 40 minutes daily physical activity and are sedentary for more than 10 hours have shorter telomeres than women who are more active. Researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine concluded that the more sedentary women had cells that were biologically older by 8 years compared to the more active women. Regular exercise helps to support healthy telomeres, and what’s also interesting is that doing different types of exercise seems to confer extra benefits – it seems the more varied your exercise routine, the longer your telomeres will be. 

3. Eat better – A diet rich in fresh, natural wholefoods packed full of fruits, vegetables and wholegrains is more protective towards telomeres than a heavily processed diet of refined sugar and fast food.

3. Increase omega-3 - Omega-3 fats EPA & DHA found in rich supply in nuts, seeds and oily fish seem to have a protective effect on telomeres. Unfortunately, oily fish such as tuna, salmon and mackerel can also be contaminated with heavy metals and other toxins such as PCBs so it’s worth sticking to just two portions a week to limit your exposure and topping up with a daily fish oil supplement to ensure optimal intake of omega-3s. Choose an omega-3 fish oil supplement that has been thoroughly purified and is free from harmful toxins.

4. Reduce stress - Chronic stress has a negative effect on telomere length and many studies have shown that the shortness of telomeres is directly related to how severe the stress is. What’s interesting however is that the effects are less pronounced in people who exercise regularly. It seems that exercise buffers the negative effects of stress on telomere length. Relaxing forms of exercise such as yoga and pilates, and mindfulness meditation have all been found to reduce stress and support longevity and healthy ageing too. Perhaps this is in part due to their positive effects on telomeres.

Some people have questioned the usefulness of this type of research since the resulting recommendations (eat better, exercise more, reduce stress) are more of what we’ve already heard.  However, Professor Elizabeth Blackburn author of The Telomere Effect argues that research like this helps to reinforce the importance of making these changes. She commented,

“People hadn’t understood why at the cellular level the sorts of things that are recommended to improve lifestyle can help stave off disease. One reason is because they are helping you maintain telomeres. The book integrates a lot of new studies – from genetics, epidemiology and social science – that have been accumulating. We also provide a new biological underpinning to the mind-body connection. Nobody had any idea that meditation and the like, which people can use to reduce stress and increase wellbeing, would be having their salutary and well-documented useful effects in part through telomeres. The book is also recognising how much control we have. Small tweaks in how you approach stress, for example, can lead to long-term habits that make a difference.” 

As far as testing the length of your telomeres goes however the general consensus is that it is possible but not really that useful. The recommendations following a test would be the same no matter what your results were; eat better, move more and stress less! And we would all benefit from making these changes at any point in our lives regardless of finding out the length of our telomeres.

There’s no disputing however the fact that understanding a bit more about telomeres, how important they are and aspects of your diet and lifestyle that can influence them is incredibly motivating. Sometimes all we need is an extra nudge to actually make changes for the better and this could deliver just that.

Chromosomes: Thread-like structures that carry genetic material on our cells

Shadyab A H et al. Associations of accelerometer-measured and self-reported sedentary time with leukocyte telomere length in older women.  American Journal of Epidemiology, January 2017, DOI: 10.1093/aje/kww196

The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, healthier, Longer  – Professor Elizabeth Blackburn & Elissa Epel

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