Just as humans have a natural life span, so does each of the trillions of cells in our bodies. While many people tend to think of ageing as a process from the outside in (I see the changes of age on my skin, so my cells on the inside must be ageing too), the opposite is more correct. We age visibly on the outside because of what is going on inside. As our internal cells age, it becomes more and more visible on the outside – the area we see physically.
The process in which our cells age and eventually die, called senescence, is due to the shortening of chromosomal telomeres in our cells. Every cell in the human body contains chromosomes that store our DNA. On either end of every chromosome are molecules called telomeres that serve to protect the chromosomes from degradation caused by the loss of important base pairs of DNA sequences at their ends.
Every time a cell divides, a portion of the chromosome-protecting telomere is lost. Eventually the telomeres become too short to protect the chromosome, and the chromosome loses its ability to replicate. At this point, we can think of the cell as being too old, and it dies through a process called apoptosis. The human body uses telomerase enzyme to maintain a healthy length of the telomeres and to repair them when they get too short. However, eventual cell death is a natural process that happens to all cells except our long-lived stem cells, which live for many years, some perhaps for our entire lifetime. Intriguing studies today suggest that it is in fact possible to lengthen the life span of and repair damage within stem cells by activating the enzyme telomerase, which may even extend the life span of non-stem cells.
Due to the shortening of telomeres after cell division and the subsequent lengthening from telomerase enzyme, the life span of a cell can be visualized as a windup clock. If you can keep a clock wound (in this case by providing the telomerase enzyme and avoiding damage), the clock will continue to function. Theoretically, cells may become essentially immortal and continue to replicate indefinitely, which in turn keeps the body young. However, if you are unable to keep winding the clock, it will eventually stop.
This metaphor is intriguing because it hints at some very exciting anti-ageing possibilities. But the truth of the matter is that we have no way to totally stop the ageing process, but in the case of senescence and telomeres, we may have ways to slow it down. That could allow us to wind the clock a few more times before it stops ticking. Even though the human body has functions that replenish telomeres in order to keep cells alive longer, emerging research is suggesting that other factors such as high levels of stress, poor nutrition, excessive environmental and dietary pollution, lack of sleep, and other factors can cause our telomeres to shorten prematurely.
Why are telomeres so important?
While replicating DNA, enzymes are not able to replicate the sequences at the ends of the chromosomes. That is why they often become shortened. Therefore the ends of the chromosomes need to be protected so the important information they contain does not get lost but is pasted onto the new cells generation after generation. Telomeres cap these end sequences and sacrifice themselves in order to protect the vital DNA. After replication, stem cells use telomerase enzyme to replenish the telomere cap.
The actual length of telomeres varies quite a bit from species to species. Simple yeast has around 300 base pairs, but humans can have thousands of base pairs, effectively giving them a much longer life span. When telomeres shorten to a length of three kilobases or less, they are considered “critically short” telomeres. Healthy young people have telomere lengths of eight to 10 kilobases. Telomere shortening in humans is thought to be responsible for many of the negative effects of aging we see. For example, shortened telomeres are currently thought to impair immune function and could be a factor in increasing the risk of developing dementia. So anything we can do to slow shortening or actually to lengthen telomeres could help us stay healthier at a cellular level. In turn this can help safeguard against the effects of ageing.
One major factor in helping protect against premature telomere loss is stress management, because there are a great many stress factors that may affect telomere length. These can include stressful job situations, relationship or family problems, poverty, early childhood trauma, diet, fitness level, bad habits (such as drinking excessively and smoking), and much more. Even gender can play a role, as men tend to be less careful about managing stress and consequently tend to have shorter telomeres than women do.
Because there is growing scientific evidence that experiencing too many of these stress factors for too long can prematurely shrink the length of your telomeres, stress management activities and practices are becoming even more important than we previously thought. Broadly speaking, consuming a healthy diet that is rich in fresh fruits and vegetables can help give you the nutritional support required for healthy stress management, which can be further enhanced by supplementing with a broad spectrum of micronutrients. When it comes down to it, it is simply easier to deal with stress when your body is properly fed and supported nutritionally. On the other hand, a poor diet that is filled with fats, sugars and manufactured foods will tend to make you feel worse both physically and mentally, which exacerbates stress.
Beyond diet, there are many ways to manage stress that could ultimately help protect your telomeres. From yoga to reading, meditation and sports, if you find an activity that helps shed stress and makes you feel good, use it. A few practices that work for almost everyone are listening to relaxing music, physical exercise and talking with friends. But the wonderful thing about anti-stress activities is there is no one right way to do it. Just find something that works for you and stick with it.
Our bodies have natural ways of replenishing telomeres and helping keep our cells healthy. But everything we can do to provide nutritional support, regular physical activity and stress reduction can further help promote healthy aging at a cellular level.
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