Telomeres are the exciting new kids on the ageing block. We all have them and they play a crucial role in protecting our DNA when cells divide. They are linked with ageing because the older you get the shorter your telomeres become. So one big question about ageing is: If I keep my telomeres from getting too short, will that make me healthier and likely to live longer?
The answer I got from a Nobel Prize-winner and genetics researcher at a conference on ageing last week was – probably.
A bit of background. Telomeres are actually protective caps on the ends of chromosomes which are “bags” that hold strands of DNA in the nucleus of every cell. Children’s cells, the ones usually tested are immune cells in the blood, have fairly long ones and every time a cell divides they are slightly worn down.
Several discoveries point to the ageing link. Many patients with chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes have shorter telomeres than healthy people while very old people have longer telomeres than usual. We make an enzyme called telomerase that makes telomeres regrow and various healthy activities, such exercise and omega 3 intake boosts its production.
The Nobel laureate speaking at the conference was Professor Elizabeth Blackburn, who shared the prize in 2009 for discovering how telomeres and telomerase work. Unusually, rather than searching for a telomere-lengthening drug, Blackburn has been investigating the lifestyle changes that affect telomerase production.
While exercise and omega 3 push it up, chronic stress lowers it. Post traumatic stress sufferers have shorter telomeres as do those who care for dementia patients. However classic stress reduction techniques like meditation slow the shortening down.
Although it’s too early to say that having longer telomeres when you are older is a biomarker for ageing well or that you can improve your chances by slowing or reversing the shortening process with a healthy lifestyle, both are good possibilites.
Unfortunately that puts them into the depressing category of unprofitable life-style options for health that are likely to be ignored when it comes to spending big bucks on research or actually making a serious effort to help patients make the changes needed
As we set out in The 10 Secrets of Healthy Aging stress and depression raise the risk of heart disease and that the likes of relaxation and meditation can reduce it but what you get for a raised risk of heart disease is more pills.
We know that losing weight, exercising and and adopting a low glycaemic diet can make a big difference to the symptoms of diabetes, reversing it in some cases. But we spend around 600 million pounds a year on diabetes drugs and several new weight loss drugs could be licenced by the end of the year.
Speaker after speaker at the conference – and at every other meeting on the problems of our booming elderly population – stressed the need to get serious about prevention. These included – Professor David Oliver in charge of older people’s services for the government, Delia Meth-Cohn of the Economist Intelligence Unit and Professor Steve Field Chair of the NHS Futures Forum.
But is it likely to happen? Not very. At least not while the belief persists that evidence based medicine as practised at the moment, is delivering drug treatments that are safe and effective. See the newest Alzheimer’s drug, the Tamiflu saga and serious doubts on clinical trials. One way out is non-commercial funding