What if humans could match the lifespan of Ming, the world's longest-living animal... Ming was an ocean quahog – a type of clam – who holds the current record at 507 years old.
That's more than seven times longer than the average 71-year life expectancy of humans.
And take the American lobster. It's more similar to humans than a mollusk... and it belongs to a group of organisms that is considered "biologically immortal." As long as a lobster doesn't fall victim to a predator or outside injury, its cells don't seem to deteriorate with age.
Lobsters have a certain enzyme in all of their organs that helps lengthen the protective caps at the end of their DNA.
Those caps, called telomeres, may be the key to extending human lives...
Human DNA is also protected by telomeres, which play an important role when your cells divide, or make new cells. But these caps wear down each time your cells divide, so they disappear as you age.
Think of telomeres as those plastic tips on shoelaces that prevent the laces from unraveling. With each cycle, a little bit of telomere DNA gets lost, but the important coding DNA is still protected.
Shorter telomeres are associated with dead and dying cells. Short telomeres also suggest a person is susceptible to age-related diseases and even early mortality.
Many stressors shorten telomeres, including inflammation, psychological stress, and not getting enough sleep. But there are ways to protect and even lengthen your telomeres.
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Three Ways to Protect Your Telomeres
1. Antioxidants are a class of chemicals renowned for fighting cancer and other ailments like cataracts. Antioxidants also help blood vessels expand and regulate the flow of blood. Vitamin C is one type of antioxidant. Other antioxidants include vitamin E, beta-carotene, and selenium.
Eating foods rich in antioxidants can help preserve your telomeres and improve your health in other ways... A 2008 study published in the International Journal of Cancer discovered that women with low antioxidant intakes had shorter telomeres and an increased risk of breast cancer.
Getting plenty of antioxidants in your diet is simple. Antioxidant-rich foods include chocolate (the darker, the better), popcorn, blueberries, red wine, tomatoes, and broccoli.
2. Exercise reduces stress, releases endorphins, improves brain function, and improves cardiovascular health. And it turns out, exercise also lengthens telomeres...
Scientists from the University of California San Francisco tested the relationship between exercise (along with other lifestyle changes) and telomere lengths. Participants who walked at a moderate pace for 30 minutes a day for six days each week lengthened their telomeres about 10%. (Participants also improved their diet, reduced stress, and increased social support.)
Note that participants did not need strenuous exercise to improve their health. Even yoga and gardening can count toward your daily movement requirements.
3. Vitamin D is associated with telomere length. Vitamin D inhibits cell proliferation (how fast your cells grow and divide).
A 2007 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found a positive association between high vitamin D concentrations and longer telomeres. Although the study shows a correlation and not a direct cause and effect, we know vitamin D reduces cell division in white blood cells (the cells used in most telomere studies), so it may have a direct role in preserving telomeres.
Taking a 30-minute walk provides you with enough sunlight for your body to generate the right levels of vitamin D.
Research on the importance of telomere length keeps piling up. The good news is that if you follow the suggestions I've outlined here, you'll find yourself on the way to improving the quality of your life by increasing the length of your telomeres.
What We're Reading...
- Watch a video explaining what telomeres are from the Smithsonian Channel.
- The death of Ming... How science killed the world's oldest animal.
- Something different: Is your parmesan cheese actually wood pulp?