In 2009, Nobel Prize-winning research winning research discovered “how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase”. While not quite finding the Elixir of Life, this discovery broadened our understanding of how we age and gave us some insight into what we can do to slow down the process.
Telomeres are caps on the end of each of each strand of our DNA that protect the chromosomes, rather like the plastic tips that prevent the ends of shoelaces fraying. They affect how our cells age.
Every time a cell replicates, the telomeres get progressively shorter, until eventually they are so short they lose their protective function. Our cells age and cease to work properly. When our telomeres over-shorten, we can see and feel signs of aging; we develop grey hairs as hair pigment cells die, wrinkles where skin cells die, and when the cells of the immune system die, our risk of illness increases.
So, do we have control over our telomere length in the daily choices we make? Without delving too deeply into the scientific details here, the message is essentially what your grandmother has been telling you all along: take exercise, get lots of sleep, have a positive attitude to life, and eat healthy food. We took some words of wisdom from people who lived to be 100+ and found some interesting correlations.
The NHS recommends we do at least 2.5 hours of moderate aerobic activity (brisk walking or cycling) each week and strength exercises two days a week. The 2.5 hours a week can be broken up into 30 minutes on five days. George Jedenoff, a 100-year-old skier, advises we make exercise “part of your daily living, not a thing you sometimes do”.
As well as scheduled weekly exercise such as a tennis game or a yoga class, build exercise into your day by walking or cycling to work, or getting off public transport a couple of stops early and walking. Walk up any stairs and escalators – they’re free treadmills. And beware of sitting - “the new smoking”: links between a sedentary lifestyle and illness continue to emerge. We’re advised to take an active break from sitting every 30 minutes, so walk around, or do some stretching exercises before returning to your desk.
When you regularly sleep badly, you risk serious medical conditions such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease, and even shorten your life expectancy. There are ways to make sure you get your recommended six to nine hours sleep every night. Go to bed at a regular time and have a wind-down period before you settle down to sleep: a warm bath, gentle stretching exercises, reading a book or listening to a podcast to make you feel drowsy. Make sure your bedroom is sleep-friendly: quiet, clean, tidy and dark, with a comfortable mattress and at a temperature of between 18 and 24°C. Avoid watching TV or scrolling through your phone or tablet in bed. As 117-year-old Nabi Tajima said, “Eat and sleep and you will live a long time… You have to learn to relax”.
Studies suggest that chronic stress potentially affects cell aging through telomere shortening. For the sake of your telomeres, it’s important to manage stress daily and cultivate a “glass half-full” attitude. Exercise can help, as can as taking control of things that stress you, prioritising what’s important. Meditation and mindfulness practice can serve both as relaxing ‘me time’ and time to calm your busy mind. Avoid smoking, caffeine and alcohol as ways of coping. Being with others is immensely beneficial, whether it’s in a happy marriage, volunteering, or downtime with friends and family.
Amelia Tereza Harper, speaking at the age of 103 said, “behave well to other people, show them respect and help them as much as you possibly can and it will be repaid hundredfolds”.
A healthy daily diet, particularly the ”Mediterranean diet” is associated with longer telomeres. This diet includes lots of fresh vegetables, fruit, fish, nuts, cereals, beans, peas and other legumes, and unsaturated fat in the form of olive oil. It’s lower in meat and includes fewer dairy products. For example, choose wholegrain cereals with fruit, or toast with nut butter for breakfast; vegetable soups or wholemeal pittas with salad and fish or chicken for lunch and pasta with tomato-based sauces, vegetables or a little lean meat for dinner. Snack on fruit, plain yogurt or nuts. Violet Brown, who lived to be 117, enjoyed a diet that contained “plenty of locally-grown produce like sweet potatoes, breadfruit, oranges and mangoes”.