Studies into Telomeres — DNA structures linked to the ageing of cells — date back eight decades. But since telomeres were the focus of the 2009 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine, they’ve become the center of attention in scientific communities and are already being used as health biomarkers in fitness and spa lifestyle programs. Telomeres are caps at the ends of our chromosomes that prevent them from fraying as our cells replicate. As a cell ages, its telomeres become shorter; when they fall below a certain length, the cell can no longer divide and it dies. This cell loss causes aging in the body.
However, the aging of our cells doesn’t always match our chronological age because, in addition to normal aging, telomeres are worn down through an unhealthy and stressful lifestyle. Conversely, it’s also been found that telomerase — an enzyme stimulated by healthy lifestyle changes including enhancing wellbeing — can protect telomeres from shortening and may even lengthen them, effectively reversing the ageing process.
A telomere test can analyze the length of your telomeres to accurately measure your biological age and provide an evaluation of health — i.e., the longer your telomeres are, the healthier you are. It can even show disease risk: Cells with shortened telomeres may function poorly and have been linked to age-associated diseases such as osteoporosis and dementia.
Indeed, telomere length is one of the best biomarkers of overall health status, indicating the impact of diet, fitness, toxins and chronic stress. Telome Health, for example, will offer a TeloAge report in which your personal telomere length is presented compared to a healthy control population in your age and gender group, to gauge how you measure up to the healthy average. Repeating the tests over time gives you the best view into how your cells are ageing and whether your current lifestyle is working for or against you.
But what lifestyle aspects in particular — bad or good — have been proven to have an impact on telomeres?
Scientific research has revealed that stress is high on the list of factors that can prematurely shorten telomere length. The relaxing nature of spas and the stress-busting benefits of a gym workout make these important elements to improve one’s ageing status — and even reverse the negative effects of premature ageing.
Although there are no large clinical trials published yet, given the multitude of existing studies, it’s possible the following may be helpful for maintaining or even lengthening telomeres:
• Increasing exercise: Incorporating four to five training sessions each week.
• Improving nutrition: Implementing a low-fat diet with less red and processed meat and talking to a nutritionist about dietary supplements.
• Improving metabolism: Starting a weight-loss program.
• Enhancing well-being: Reducing psychological stress and depression and increasing feelings of personal control and purpose in life.
• Decreasing stress: Adding yoga and meditation to lifestyle program.
Telomere testing has, until now, only been available through blood tests. However, the U.S. company Telome Health has now developed the saliva-based TeloTest. Telome Health has been founded by leading telomere experts and the test is revolutionary because saliva samples can be easily collected in a test tube at a fitness club or at home. This single test might soon become the gold standard for gauging overall well-being.
Jay Williams, Ph.D., is an physiologist, nutritionist, clinical professor, author, researcher and health consultant. She has published several books and is a member of the Health/Wellness Advisory Board for Turner Media Time Warner; her articles are published in the Huffington Post and Dr. Oz ShareCare. A version of this article first appeared in Spa Business. For more information about the Vail Living Well Summit, visit www.vaillivingwell.org, Facebook or call Vail Living Well event concierge, Kaylee Brennand at 970-343-9918.