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By Andrea Drever

Content and Editorial Director


Telomeres sit at the end of our strands of DNA, sort of like the protective caps on shoelaces. An unhealthy lifestyle shortens those caps, making it more likely that cells will stop dividing. If we have too many of these non-dividing cells, it accelerates aging. So, by making positive lifestyle changes, can we slow or even reverse the effects of aging?

In 2009, molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn shared a Nobel Prize for her research on telomeres — the structures that play a key role in cellular aging. Her discoveries build a strong case for keeping our new year’s resolutions to not smoke, eat well, sleep enough, exercise regularly and reduce stress. Because all these activities affect the length of our telomeres, and thus the aging process.

Basically, the shortening of telomeres leads us to feel and see signs of aging. Skin cells start to die and you begin to see fine lines and wrinkles. Hair pigment cells die and you start to see gray. Immune system cells die and you increase your risk of getting sick. Twenty years of research clearly indicates that telomere attrition is contributing to our risks of getting cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and some cancers. The very diseases many people die from.

But there’s good news. Extensive research shows that exercise, good nutrition and stress reduction can keep telomeres from getting shorter, and can even lengthen them. In one study conducted by scientists at UC San Francisco, telomeres grew in length by about 10% for people who made positive lifestyle changes, and got shorter by about 3% in the control group. And the study found that telomere growth can happen at any age.

Want to lengthen your telomeres? Here are some scientifically proven ways to do just that.

The Lifestyle Changes That Lead to Lengthened Telomeres:

Diet

  • Eat mostly plant-based whole foods
  • Reduce your intake of red meat, sugar and refined, processed food
  • Eat omega-3 fatty acids: flaxseed, fish oil
  • Consume antioxidants: berries, green leafy vegetables
  • Eat folate and fiber: legumes, spinach
  • Avoid tobacco products

Exercise

  • Aim for 150 minutes a week of moderate to vigorous exercise
  • Find activities you enjoy and do them regularly
  • Stay active

Relaxation and Stress Management

  • Aim for 12 minutes a day of meditation
  • Practice yoga two to three times a week
  • Get massages
  • Engage in hobbies
  • Have a wind-down routine before bed
  • Get quality sleep

Social Bonds

  • Seek regular social interaction
  • Sustain quality friendships

If the length of one’s telomeres is an indicator of aging, you might be wondering if there’s a way to discover how long your telomeres are. There are actually several direct-to-consumer tests. However, there are many limitations associated with these tests. The techniques used vary greatly and tend to have poor reproducibility. Basically, telomere lengths are too variable within a population, too variable within an individual and too sensitive to environmental factors to offer any reliable information for common disease risk.

So, instead of trying to measure your telomeres, it’s probably better to simply focus on the lifestyle factors that have been proven to lengthen them. Which means the argument for sticking to those resolutions is stronger than ever.

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