Seems like every time we flick on the morning show or grab a newspaper we’re hearing about some new discovery that’s bringing scientists one step closer to understanding how we age and possibly a way to halt, slow or even (gasp!) reverse environmental and genetic aging.Such is the case with the latest youth-enabling buzzword on every scientist’s lips: telomeres.Telo-what?This story begins with our chromosomes. These threads are made up of protein and DNA—the latter of which influences our eye and hair color, not to mention our susceptibility to more serious health conditions.Telomeres exist in the tips of the chromosomes. “Telomeres are the protective codes at the end of our chromosomes that allow our genetic information to be properly passed on when our cells divide,” explains Joshua Zeichner, M.D., Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research at NYC’s Mount Sinai Medial Center Department of Dermatology.Think of them as aglets—those plastic do-hickeys that protect the ends of shoelaces from fraying. (Pop culture note: Remember Tom Cruise renamed aglets, “flugelbinders” in 1988’s “Cocktail”?).So each time a cell divides, these telomeres/aglets/flugelbinders get shorter, until they eventually stop working, the cell dies, or goes into a suspended state called “senescence.” This process is behind much of the wear-and-tear of aging.“Shortening of telomeres has been associated with a variety of diseases including heart disease, cancer, dementia and skin aging,” says Zeichner. And wouldn’t you know it, sun damage and stress also contribute to telomere shortening.Get to know your telomeresEveryone has telomeres, but not everyone’s telomere lengths are the same, or shorten at the same pace. Genetics play a role, but so do the environment, stress and lifestyle.A recent study authored by Catherine Schaefer, Ph.D., for the Kaiser Permanente research program on genes, environment and health, supported the belief that the length of one’s telomeres (or lack of) is a valid indicator of life expectancy along with other fun facts such as:
- The greater one’s body mass index, the longer their telomeres (a surprise finding that is contradicted by earlier, smaller studies)
- Higher education levels were linked to longer telomeres
- Smokers and drinkers have shorter telomeres
- Women tend to have longer telomeres than men
- African Americans were also found to have “notably longer” telomeres in relation to other racial and ethnic groups.