Diet, Exercise May Protect Your Telomeres

Dorian Martin Health Guide
  • While making out your gift list, have you started thinking about what present you will give to your telomeres? What about your New Year’s Resolutions? What are you going to do to benefit your telomeres?

    If you haven’t heard of telomeres (and why they are as important to you as your family and your sweetheart), let me introduce you. Telomeres are found at the ends of the stretches of DNA on your chromosomes. These telomeres keep your chromosomes’ ends from fraying, thus protecting your genetic information. However, each time a cell divides, the telomeres get shorter. Once the telomeres get too short, the cell is not able to divide and becomes inactive or dies. This shortening process is linked to aging and a higher risk of death.

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    Researchers believe that longer telomeres are associated with fewer illnesses as well as a longer life. Shorter telomeres have been associated with age-related diseases, including stroke, cancer, vascular dementia, cardiovascular disease, obesity, osteoporosis and diabetes.

    You’d think that you wouldn’t have much control over your telomeres, but research is suggesting that viewpoint is wrong. For instance, researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School looked at data from 4,676 disease-free women who were taking part in the Nurses’ Health Study. As part of the study, researchers measured the women’s telomeres and asked them complete food frequency questionnaires.

    Their analysis found that the participants who most closely followed the Mediterranean diet (which encourages eating vegetables, fruit, nuts, legumes, unrefined grains and olive oil with limited intake of dairy products, meat and poultry) had longer telomeres. The researchers calculated that each 1-point change in adherence to the Mediterranean diet resulted in a difference in telomere length; thus, participants who more closely adhered to this eating plan had longer telomeres. This is important because shorter telomeres in white blood cells have been shown to predict coronary heart disease.

    In an accompanying BMJ editorial, Dr. Peter M. Nilsson from Lund University in Sweden wrote, “The new report from the Nurses’ Health Study adds to the evidence from the same female cohort that longer telomeres are associated with a cluster of beneficial characteristics of healthy lifestyles and possibly even better cognition. A Mediterranean diet is the cornerstone of dietary advice in cardiovascular disease prevention, and the fact that it also links with a biomarker of slower ageing is reassuring.” He called for additional studies that involved men as well as further analysis on whether coronary events could be predicted in relation to telomere lengths.

    Furthermore, a small pilot study on telomeres out of the University of California San Francisco suggested that diet is just one factor that can protect and even lengthen telomeres. This 2013 study involved 35 men with early-stage prostate cancer over a period of five years.

    These researchers asked 10 participants to change their lifestyle in relation to diet, exercise, stress reduction and support. The recommended diet included a plant-based diet that was high in fruits, vegetables and unrefined grains and was low in fats and refined carbohydrates. (This sounds a lot like the components of a Mediterranean diet). This subgroup also did moderate exercising (walking 30 minutes daily on six days a week) and took part in a stress reduction program that consisted of gentle yoga-based stretching, breathing and meditation. They also participated in a weekly support group.


  • These 10 men were then compared to the other study participants who did not make lifestyle changes. Researchers found that the study participants who changed their lifestyle saw their telomere length increase by approximately 10 percent. Furthermore, the more the participants adhered to the recommended lifestyle program, the greater the improvements in their telomere length. In comparison, the men who did not alter their lifestyle had telomeres that were nearly 3 percent shorter when the study ended. Obviously, this study is really small, but it is worthwhile to see if a larger study comes to similar conclusions.

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    That leads me to recommend that you buy yourself a couple of presents this year in the categories of diet (perhaps a CSA share or a healthy cookbook), exercise (like new walking shoes or a gym membership), stress reduction (such as a meditation course), and a regular support group (perhaps a healthy lunch group or book group). Happy holidays!

    Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

    Crous-Bou, M., et al. (2014). Mediterranean diet and telomere length in Nurses’ Health Study: population based cohort study. BMJ.

    Fernandez, E. (2013). Lifestyle changes may lengthen telomeres, a measure eof cell aging. University of California San Francisco.

    Genetic Science Learning Center. (ND). Are telomeres the key to aging and cancer?

    Nilsson, P. M. (2014). Mediterranean diet and telomere length. BMJ.

Published On: December 09, 2014