Telomeres are the protective cap at the end of DNA which protects our chromosomes. The length of telomeres shortens with age which raises the intriguing possibility that telomere length forms a key part of the ageing process. Now scientists are looking into how much diet can influence telomere length.
Telomeres are one of today’s hottest topics in science. Top researchers are connecting telomeres to ageing, health and even longevity. The claims make for great headlines, but also brands the field a controversial one for it.
What exactly are telomeres? They’re the caps at the end of each strand of DNA and act as protection for our chromosomes. Think of them like the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces. As we age, telomeres become shorter and contain less coating. With the protective cap compromised, DNA strands become damaged. Think of how your shoelace can become frayed when it loses its plastic tip.
Each time a cell divides, the telomeres shorten. A nice analogy is that telomeres are like a bomb fuse: when they get to a critical length, it’s kaboom!
Pharmaceutical companies are desperately searching for drugs that can slow down the shortening of telomeres and protect DNA from the ravages of time. A drug that could do this would rake in big money. It’s a modern-day search for the fountain of youth. Putting aside the headline grabbing sound bites of a ‘longevity pill’, what do we know already about how lifestyle can influence the rate of telomere shortening?
Inflammation key to telomere length
Inflammation and oxidative stress are two factors connected to faster rates of telomere shortening. Insulin resistance, a key part of metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes, also elevates inflammation and oxidative stress. Diet and lifestyle are big players in chronic inflammation. This opens the door for a connection between diet influencing telomere length and now we have some research to fill this void.
In the first study of its kind, researchers looked at studies that collected information on both dietary habits and telomere length of participants. From a pool of 17 studies, several themes emerged. A Mediterranean-style dietary pattern and also diets high in fruits and vegetables were linked to longer telomere length. On the opposite end, diets high in highly refined grains, processed meats, and sugar-sweetened beverages were pointing towards a shorter telomere length.
The quality of the research studies that informed the conclusion were quite mixed. Most of the studies were cross-sectional. A cross-sectional study only gives a snapshot at a moment in time of diet and telomere length. Sturdier studies would measure diet and telomere length repeatedly over a span of many years.
Making sense of it all
How to make practical sense of this new research? Let’s start with what we do know. Dietary patterns rich in fruits, vegetables and wholegrains are linked with less chronic diseases and a longer life. On the opposing side, we have the hype and hope of telomere length being the cup to drink out of the fountain of youth.
The rope bridge that connects diet with telomeres is intertwined with inflammation and oxidation. If you eat a poor diet: the strands of the rope bridge fray and the bridge crashes down well before its time. Good diet: a strong bridge capable of bearing the load of what life throws at it.
Let’s propose that telomere length turns out to be a deadend alley in the search for the cause of ageing and disease. The implications for dietary recommendations don’t budge one bit. There is so much known already about the key dietary patterns linked to good health. No need to tie your shoelaces in knots trying to figure out ‘why’, just eat and enjoy.