Thanks to an intrepid trio of scientists—Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider, and Jack W. Szostak—researchers can now directly measure the impact of diet, activity, illness, and other factors on aging by using telomere length as their gauge.
It was the discovery of the telomere’s function that earned these scientists a Nobel Prize in 2009.
But what exactly is a telomere, how does it indicate a person’s biological age, and where does the longevity diet fit into this equation?
Like Gray Hair for Your DNA
Telomeres are one of the few genetic indicators of a person’s age. This is how we can approximate a person’s age without knowing what they look like.
As you may recall from biology, most cells in the body have our genetic code, (i.e., DNA) housed in the nucleus, or center of the cell.
The DNA strands in the nucleus are threaded onto stringy-looking structures, a.k.a. the chromosomes.
Telomeres are the ends of the chromosomes; they act as protective caps that prevent the chromosomes from sticking to each other.
They also protect the genetic information (DNA) on the chromosome, preventing a litany of problems such as:
Healthy cells becoming cancer cells (oncogenic transformation)
As our cells divide, they need to make copies of the DNA/chromosomes, and each time they do so, telomere length decreases slightly—that’s the inevitable (chronological) aspect of aging.
Shorter telomeres means less protection of the precious genetic information encoded onto the chromosomes, which means the above problems (cancer, accelerated aging, etc.) are much more likely to occur.
However, researchers are claiming that diet can moderate telomere shortening for the betterment of overall health and longevity.
Can the Longevity Diet Really Affect Telomere Length?
In the sense that they can slow down the process of telomere shortening (actively lengthening telomeres could theoretically reverse aging), yes, several nutrients have been shown in research to affect telomere length.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
A study by San Francisco General Hospital found that participants who consumed the most “marine” omega-3s experienced “the slowest rate of telomere shortening.”
In the study, researchers measured the telomere length of the 608 participants twice, five years apart, comparing follow-up values to baseline values and connecting these data to omega-3 consumption.
They found that telomere length was reliably connected to omega-3 consumption at both ends of the spectrum—the lowest quartile of consumers had the most telomere shortening and vice versa.
Omega-3 fatty acids are especially important to Westerners because our excessive consumption of omega-6 fatty acids (vegetable oils, processed foods, and more) throws off the omega-6/omega-3 ratio, which is necessary to maintain for heart health and other reasons.
Marine omega-3 sources include:
The widespread under-consumption of dietary fiber, an issue referred to gravely by nutritionists as “the fiber gap,” is made all the more pressing now that we know fiber has a central role in telomere length maintenance.
More than just regulating digestion, preventing heart disease, and curbing blood sugar spikes, a Brigham Young University study found that there is a “significant linear relationship between fiber consumption and telomere length.”
The researchers pulled data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), a massive survey conducted by the Center for Disease Control, to measure the dietary habits of the 5674 eligible participants.
They compared nutritional habits of survey respondents to telomere length, concluding that there is a positive, linear relationship between fiber consumption and telomere length.
Researchers calculated that for every one-gram increase in fiber per 1000 calories consumed, telomeres were “6.7 base pairs” longer on average.
To provide context, each year of chronological age is accompanied by an average loss of 15.5 base pairs of telomere length.
Whole Grains, Fish, and Legumes
In a study from Naples, Italy, 217 elderly subjects following the Mediterranean diet were stratified into groups according to “adherence level” (to the diet).
Then, researchers measured telomere length as a function of Mediterranean diet adherence.
The data spelled out a ringing endorsement for the Mediterranean diet, as levels of telomerase—the enzyme responsible for maintaining telomere length—were consistently higher in more adherent groups.
Key staples of the mediterranean diet include whole grains, fish, vegetables, legumes, and olive oil.
Aside from a slightly greater emphasis on fiber, the longevity diet and Mediterranean diet are very similar.
Non-Dietary Influences on Telomere Length
Though researchers have yet to isolate the mechanisms involved, they know the connection between exercise and telomere length is there because the data is consistent in almost every finding to date (more active, longer telomeres).
However, a review from the University of Massachusetts did identify a few mechanisms that need to be explored, such as exercise’s impact on:
Satellite cells (skeletal muscle stem cells)
In other words, exercise has been convincingly linked to improved telomere length in multiple studies, but how exactly this effect takes hold is still under investigation.
From Theory to Practice
Here’s how to translate this information into actionable steps that will help you slow down biological aging.
Choose minimally processed foods that are high in fiber, like fruit, vegetables, nuts, etc.
Eat more fish to increase omega-3 intake, and reduce omega-6 (processed vegetable oil, meat, eggs) intake.
Exercise for at least 2.5 hours a week.
This list will be refined further as our collective understanding of telomere length, nutrition, and exercise evolves, but in the prevention of premature aging and so many other wellness goals, these three tips will always be essential.
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TNI Editorial Team
We're health-conscious people who want to help others take control of their nutrition by offering spin-free, hype-free information that is medically accurate, confirmed by doctors.
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