Have you heard about your telomeres? Scientific research has been piling up to show that these little protein structures capping the ends of our DNA are the keys to lifelong health and well-being.

Telomeres protect our DNA strands, help them maintain their structure, and keep them from breaking down. As cells divide to replicate, the DNA splits too, and a tiny bit of telomere is lost. The longer we live, the more cell divisions we go through, and the shorter the telomeres get.

What we are learning of now is the lifestyle factors that might be involved with speeding this process along. Research indicates that shorter telomeres are associated with shorter lifespans.

According to the National Institutes of Health, here are the key lifestyle factors that correlate with shorter telomeres:

1) Nutrition

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: eating well might lead to a longer life. A handful of studies reviewed specifics with limited findings. Longer telomeres were associated with higher dietary fiber, higher antioxidants (like vitamin E, vitamin C, and omega-3) and lower protein intake. Shorter telomeres were associated with higher intake of unsaturated fats, particularly omega-6.

An interesting point was observed in animal studies: lower overall food intake was associated with a longer lifespan. While this has not yet been observed in people, researchers suggested it might be due to limiting the normal free radicals produced during the eating and digestive processes. Free radicals can damage DNA, which researchers believe might shorten telomeres.

Keep in mind that this handful of studies are not yet considered consensus and that these relationships do not necessarily mean that eating more fiber will result in longer telomeres! Health is far more complicated than that. What we do have is the ability to watch scientific evidence gather in real-time, as opposed to waiting decades for the final verdict.

Should you change how you’re eating? No – just continue to aim for the general pattern of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans: mostly whole grains, veggies, fruit, low-fat/plant-based proteins, and a variety of fats and oils. If you’re concerned about how much food is the right amount for you, contact a registered dietitian for a personalized nutrition assessment!

2) Obesity

Having higher levels of fat tissue in the body was associated with shorter telomeres. Scientists suggested this may be due to higher levels of free radicals in fat tissue, and not enough antioxidant activity to neutralize them – to the tune of 8.8 years taken off a lifespan! Studies in this area are limited, and so these results shouldn’t be considered conclusive.

Maintain a healthy weight by getting 30-60 minutes of activity daily and following the nutrition advice above! Focus on colorful produce packed with antioxidants and aim for 5 servings a day.

3) Exercise

Exercise is great for the body and mind in so many ways, and it’s no surprise to find that higher levels of exercise are associated with a longer lifespan. Researchers suggested a 2-part reasoning. First, it helps manage body fat composition, eliminating some of the extra free radical activity that might damage DNA. It also seemed to result in more stabilization of the telomeres themselves, with additional protein structures. 

For the most benefit, follow the World Health Organization guidelines for 150-300 minutes of physical activity per week, with at least 2 days of total body strength training.

4) Stress

Here is another familiar culprit. Hormones released during periods of stress may reduce the effectiveness of antioxidants – again, leading to free radical damage of DNA. In a limited number of studies, researchers equaled this to 10 years of life. In addition to physiological changes, high levels of stress can make it difficult for us to engage in other fundamental restorative practices; namely sleep, exercise, and good nutrition.

Consider your self-care practices and how often you engage in them. Review the parts of your life that create the most stress: what changes can you make, or what boundaries can you establish, to start preserving more time for yourself? Consider seeking out a licensed mental health provider to support you in regaining some balance.

Genetics and certain diseases have also been shown to correlate with telomere length. These are the factors out of our control. But what we can focus on is what we do have the ability to manage: nutrition, exercise, and stress levels. Here’s to keeping those telomeres long, healthy, and happy for a lifetime!

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