Just as we age on the outside, the cells in our body age on the inside. One measure of a cell’s age is the length of telomeres inside each cell. Telomeres are “end caps” on the tips of chromosomes that protect a cell’s chromosomes when it divides. Each time a cell divides, these protective telomeres become shorter. In fact, telomeres shorten by about 1% each year that you live. Once telomeres shorten beyond a certain point, the chromosomes become damaged and the cell enters “old age.” If you’re fortunate enough to have cells with long telomeres, your cells can divide many more times before they become old and die.
Interest in telomeres is strong due to their role in aging. Shortened telomeres are linked not only to aging but with certain disease states including cancer. How do telomeres relate to whole-body aging? Tissues inside your body age when cells die due to old age and can’t be replaced quickly enough. Geneticists at the University of Utah found shortened telomeres are linked with shorter lifespans and a greater risk for age-related diseases like heart disease.
Sedentary Behavior and Telomeres
If you weren’t blessed with long telomeres are you destined to age poorly? Not necessarily. In fact, a new study shows a simple lifestyle change, sitting less, helps lengthen telomeres. A group of researchers in Great Britain did an interesting experiment. They looked at the blood cells of 49 people in their late 60s. As a group, the participants were overweight and sedentary. Half took part in a structured exercise program while the other half continued their normal level of activity.
The researchers closely monitored their activity using a pedometer and measured the amount of time they spent moving around. After looking at their telomeres, they found participants who spent less time sitting experienced a lengthening of their telomeres. In fact, participants who sat less had greater improvements in telomere length than those who took part in a structured exercise program.
This study confirms what a growing body of research shows – sitting too much is unhealthy, regardless of how much structured exercise you do. The benefits of a daily or alternate day workout are well documented, but even if you work out religiously, it’s still important to sit less and move more during the day. If you work a desk job, it’s important to take regular breaks to walk around and stretch. Even better, adapt your work station so you can work standing up. Standing beats sitting when it comes to staying healthy. Plus, you burn 30 to 40 more calories per hour when you stand rather than sit.
Lifestyle Factors and Cell Aging: How Much Control Do You Have?
Sitting less isn’t the only lifestyle change that impacts telomere length. One study showed men with early prostate cancer who made positive lifestyle changes experienced improvements in telomere length. One such lifestyle change was eating more plant-based foods and fewer refined carbohydrates. Other changes including exercising 6 days a week for 30 minutes and taking part in a stress-reduction program like yoga and meditation. Stress too is a factor in cellular aging. It’s linked with shortened telomeres.
In this study, the more the men changed their lifestyle by eating healthier and reducing stress, the greater telomere lengthening they experienced. In fact, participants who made the most dramatic lifestyle changes had the most impressive increase in telomere length. A control group of men who didn’t make lifestyle changes had the opposite effect. They experienced a shortening of their telomeres over the course of the study.
This is exciting news for anyone who wants to slow down the aging process! Lifestyle changes like sitting less, exercising regularly, eating a clean diet and reducing stress may change how your cells age. For the first time, a study shows something as simple as spending less time in a chair has cellular anti-aging benefits.
Inadequate Sleep and Cellular Aging
Don’t forget about another type of “stress” – poor sleep habits. A study carried out at the University of California at San Francisco showed study participants who ate a healthy diet, exercised AND slept well had less telomere shortening. Sleep has an important function: it gives your body time to regenerate and repair. Research shows inadequate sleep contributes to a number of age-related health problems including the risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Plus, it’s important for brain health. Lack of adequate sleep has been linked with cognitive decline and memory problems, especially in older people.
If that’s not motivation enough to hit the sack early, a study showed a lack of sleep contributes to premature skin aging. In this study, post-menopausal women who were poor sleepers or didn’t sleep long enough showed signs of accelerated skin aging including more fine lines, skin laxity and uneven pigmentation. As the researchers in this study point out, skin repairs itself during sleep and lack of sleep interferes with this process.
The Bottom Line?
You have more control over how your cells age than you think. Lifestyle matters. How you eat, how much you move around, how much you sleep and how you handle stress are all factors that affect how quickly your cells age and how fast YOU age. Fortunately, these are all factors you can change. If you want to keep your cells healthy and slow down the aging process, make the right choices.
Genetic Science Learning Center. “Are Telomeres The Key To Aging And Cancer?”
Science Daily “Curb sitting time to protect aging DNA, possibly extend lifespan” (September 2014)
Medscape Medical News. “Reducing Sedentary Time May Protect DNA”
The University of California at San Francisco “Healthy Lifestyle May Buffer Against Stress-Related Cell Aging, Study Says”
University Hospitals. “Esteé Lauder Clinical Trial Finds Link between Sleep Deprivation and Skin Aging”
University of Cambridge “Genetic Factors in Telomere Length”