Short Telomeres Contribute to Aging

Factors That Influence Telomere Length

I didn’t give telomeres much thought until my genetic data showed that I had short telomeres. The interpretation provided by Prometheus listed a possible association with shortened lifespan. Since I was 65 years old at the time, this didn’t seem surprising, but it was definitely something worth researching. I soon discovered that increasing telomere length increases not only longevity but it improves many aspects of health.

Telomeres are found at the end of chromosomes and ensure that as cells replicate their DNA is copied accurately. Every time a cell divides, forming a new cell, its telomeres shorten. Over time cells containing shortened telomeres stop functioning properly, which is called the Hayflick Effect. With an abundance of poorly functioning cells, organs become diseased and fail. For instance, damaged liver cells called hepatocytes lead to liver disease.

All of our body’s cells die off and are replaced at specified times. For instance, each red blood cell remains viable in the body for about 120 days before it’s replaced. Both telomere length and the effects of old dying (senescent) cells are factors involved in the aging process.

White blood cells are the primary components of our immune system. The many subtypes of white blood cells have distinct functions. These include reacting to infectious agents and reducing infection; promoting inflammation as needed to help promote healing; and eliminating toxins, damaged cells, autoreactive cells (that lead to autoimmune disorders), and precancerous cells. As we age and our immune system cells become senescent, we’re more likely to develop infections, autoimmune diseases, and cancer. We also develop a process called inflammaging in which inappropriate inflammation becomes chronic and leads to a number of different disease processes, including neurodegenerative disorders.


A naturally occurring enzyme known as telomerase helps telomeres maintain their length and delay cellular aging (senescence). In 2009, the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine was awarded to the researchers who discovered this.

However, cancer cells have high telomerase activity leading to eternal cell life, which makes cancer cells, with their ability to divide indefinitely, difficult to eradicate. In studies of aging, it’s been found that factors that influence telomerase activity prevent aging. Studies of cancer cells that focus on the ways of reducing telomerase activity are also being studied. Many diseases are now associated with shortened telomeres including diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and heart disease. Consequently, any measure designed to increase telomerase is considered an anti-aging measure.

Increasing Telomerase

Studies of populations with the greatest longevity show that many of their customary dietary and lifestyle practices are those that increase telomerase. These include:

  • regular moderate exercise, approximately 30 minutes daily

  • maintaining a healthy weight

  • managing stress effectively with biofeedback, meditation or yoga because chronic stress releases hormones that compromise the natural telomerase repair systems

  • following a plant-based diet (rich in mushrooms, berries, spinach and oats) that includes at least 3 grams of omega-3 essential fatty acids such as flaxseed, salmon, sardines, and cod. Umami flavor found in monosodium glutamate and other flavor enhancers is also reported to increase telomere length.

  • consuming oolong or green tea

  • using certain dietary supplements including vitamins B, C, D3, selenium, zinc, carnosine, resveratrol, and the herbs astragalus and milk thistle. A blood test for 25 OH vitamin D is needed to help determine the dose of vitamin D3 needed for optimal levels.

  • using bioidentical hormonal therapies, particularly androgens and 17-beta estradiol

Telomerase is known to be reduced by diets containing high amounts of sugar, processed foods, and red meat as well as foods high in omega-6 oils.The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 oils should be 4:1, which is close to what our ancestors ate. Today, modern diets typically have a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 oils of an astonishing 20:1. High amounts of omega-6 oils cause water retention and are known to increase risk for stroke and heart disease.

As we think about what changes would benefit our health in 2021 consider finding ways to increase telomerase activity.