Telomeres (part of your genetic substance) and their link to aging and cancer discovery has sparked research around the globe reports the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.
Scientists now find that decreases in telomere length and levels of the enzyme that maintains them, telomerase, are markers of aging, disease risk and progression, and premature death in several types of cancer.
The use of these sensitive genetic indicators provides scientists data that affirms your amazing ability to heal and be healthy given the right conditions.
In other words, you are not doomed to a predetermined genetic fate. You can affect your genes by the choices you make in how you live your life!
For instance, a 2008 pilot study published in Lancet Oncology found that telomerase activity increased by 25 percent in men with prostate cancer after just 3 months of comprehensive lifestyle change.
This change included a low fat, primarily vegetarian diet, walking and relaxation sessions six days a week, and taking basic nutritional supplements.
Dean Ornish, MD, the main investigator of the study, is highly respected for his groundbreaking research proving that similar lifestyle changes can reverse heart disease. The success of these lifestyle changes has prompted Medicare to fund Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease.
What are telomeres?
Your cells form the basic building blocks of your body. Within each cell is a nucleus, which contains chromosomes that carry your genes. Telomeres form the ends of each chromosome.
Genes carry hereditary instructions that act as blue prints for life.
Ongoing life depends on cell division to form new cells. Lee J. Siegel of the Genetic Science Learning Center informs:
Cells normally can divide only about 50 to 70 times, with telomeres getting progressively shorter until the cells become senescent [aged], die or sustain genetic damage that can cause cancer… Without telomeres, chromosome ends could fuse together and degrade the cell’s genetic blueprint, making the cell malfunction, become cancerous or die.
Scientists liken telomeres to the plastic caps found on shoelaces as they protect the chromosomes from wearing away or sticking together. They protect your genetic data as cells divide.
Scientists now use telomere length and levels of telomerase as indicators of cellular aging.
What contributes to cellular aging?
We all are going to die some day—our cells are going to age. But, are there things we are doing or not doing that speed this aging process up?
Elissa Epel, PhD, says “yes” in her review article, “Psychological and Metabolic Stress: A Recipe for Accelerated Cellular Aging.”
She and other scientists identify three kinds of stress that accelerate cellular aging: oxidative stress, psychological stress, and metabolic stress.
Oxidative stress results from excess free radicals. Free radicals are a chemist’s term for unstable molecules capable of stripping electrons from other molecules in their effort to become stable.
They occur naturally when we breathe and during metabolism, the process that turns food into energy by combining it with oxygen from the air you breathe.
Free radicals become harmful when stress, environmental pollutants (smoking, excessive alcohol intake, smog), inflammation, infection, and/or eating unhealthy foods increase their numbers. Ray Strand, MD, nutritional medicine expert explains:
When you produce more free radicals than you can manage, you create oxidative stress. Oxygen is essential for life itself; however, it is also inherently dangerous for our existence. The same process that causes a cut apple to turn brown or metal to rust also causes your body to rust inside.
Metabolic stress and psychological stress contribute to oxidative stress.
Metabolic Stress results from overeating, especially energy dense foods like those high in animal fats and sugar (high glycemic foods). High glycemic foods contain “high” amounts of sugar or carbohydrates that your body quickly digests. Sugar is the obvious one, but they also include carbohydrates found in processed foods (white breads, flours, etc.) and others like potatoes.
Psychological stress harms the body when it becomes chronic. Stress raises your blood pressure, heart rate, and stress related hormones like adrenalin and cortisol. This stress reaction can be helpful when facing a short-term threat, like a near-miss accident; but with chronic stress the alert state doesn’t go away—it’s chronic.
Sustained high stress depletes the body’s reserves. It hampers immunity and contributes to decreased telomere length and cellular aging.
What can you do to slow down cellular aging and fend off deadly diseases like cancer?
You likely already know that lifestyle choices like not smoking, eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, and reducing stress are good for you. All act as antidotes to oxidative stress, accelerated aging, and reduce your chances of getting cancer and other chronic diseases.
You may even be aware that taking daily, balanced dietary supplementscontaining antioxidants and essential minerals helps fight the excess free radicals that contribute to oxidative stress and all its harmful effects.
Now science has sensitive indicators showing that you and the choices you make are even more powerful than they thought.
Your genes may carry your genetic blueprint, but that blue print is not fixed. Your lifestyle choices and related actions influence your genes just as your genes influence your destiny.
Though scientists say more and larger studies are needed, the measurement of telomeres and telomerase offers significant clues on how to slow down aging and fend off cancer. It’s in your genes and lifestyle choices.
Sources and Resources
Elissa S. Epel, “Psychological and Metabolic Stress: A Recipe for Accelerated Aging?” Hormones, 8, no.1, 2009, 7-22.
Genetic Science Learning Center, “Are Telomeres the Key to Aging and Cancer?,” Learn.Genetics, 28 May 2010, (17 August 2010) .
National Institutes of Health, “Genetics Home Reference” at http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/handbook/basics/gene.
National Institute of General Medical Sciences, “Extras in Newsmaking Research: Telomeres and Telomerase” at http://www.nigms.nih.gov/News/Extras/#telomere.