What are telomeres and what can they tell us about our health? These segments of DNA at the end of our chromosomes shorten each time a cell divides and are thought to be indicators of how long we’ll live. Longer telomeres are associated with slower aging, fewer age-related diseases, and generally greater life spans. One very large study conducted in 2012 found the subjects with the shortest telomeres—about 10 percent of over 100,000 participants—were 23 percent more likely to die within three years than those with longer telomeres. While scientists aren’t sure how the length of our telomeres affects the aging process, research has made it clear that longer telomeres are better. And the study of telomeres has reached the point where qualified professionals (like those of us here at Tack180) can give you a test to determine the length of your own telomeres. Let’s take a look at telomere testing and the benefits of knowing your cellular age.

First, here are some facts about telomeres courtesy of UT Southwestern Medical Center’s Shay/Wright Lab:

  • A telomere is a repeating DNA sequence at the end of the body’s chromosomes.
  • Telomeres can reach a length of 15,000 base pairs.
  • Telomeres prevent chromosomes from losing base pair sequences at their ends and stop chromosomes from fusing to each other.
  • Somewhere around 25-200 base pairs are lost from a telomere everytime a cell divides.
  • When the telomere becomes too short, the chromosome can no longer replicate. The cell becomes “old” and dies, a process known as apoptosis.

So you’ve learned that longer telomeres are associated with a longer lifespan, and that tests exist that can tell you the length of your telomeres. Why would you want to know? It’d be great to find out your telomeres are long, but what if you discovered the opposite result? Luckily, you have the power to lengthen your telomeres. Lifestyle choices like eating well, exercising and reducing stress can all affect telomere length. In the “Medical Edge from Mayo Clinic” column, the Chicago Tribune reports on a couple of different studies looking at telomere activity in men with prostate cancer. In both studies, participants were given advice on how to follow a whole-food, plant-based diet as well as stress management tips. They exercised for 30 minutes a day, engaged in an hour of activities designed to relieve stress daily, and attended a regular support group. Over the course of three months, the men’s levels of telomerase, the enzyme that makes telomeres larger, went up. And, in men who stuck to the study’s healthy lifestyle for the next five years, telomeres themselves got longer. These findings provide encouraging evidence that lifestyle changes can influence our biological age.

On the other side of the coin, not taking care of ourselves physically and mentally can take a toll on our telomeres. Consider your social life. As I mention here, not only can loneliness increase your risk of depression, cognitive decline, heart disease, and other serious conditions in ways similar to obesity and smoking, a growing body of evidence suggests that social isolation and other stressors can be detrimental to our telomeres. In a study of African grey parrots in captivity, those who were housed alone had shorter telomeres compared to those who lived with a companion bird. And a recent analysis published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found a clear link between smoking and shorter telomere length in men and women.

Now that you’ve learned about the benefits of knowing your cellular age—and your ability to influence the length of your telomeres—you can understand why we feature telomere testing as part of the Tack180 program. Once you have an idea of where you stand in terms of your genetic health, our team will analyze and interpret all of the results in light of your unique medical history and goals, developing a customized path to living longer and stronger.

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Myles Spar, MD, MPH is the Chief Medical Officer of Vault Health, a national medical practice specializing in care for men, and Is board certified in Internal Medicine and in Integrative Medicine. As a clinician, teacher and researcher on faculty of two major medical centers, he has led the charge for a more proactive, holistic and personalized approach to care that focuses on cutting edge technology and preventative care. Dr. Spar has traveled with the NBA, presented a TEDx Talk, appeared on Dr. Oz, and been featured in publications such as the Men’s Journal and the Los Angeles Times.