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.
Telomeres begat telomeraseBut telomeres really came to our collective attention when in 2009, Drs. Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their discovery of telomerase, an enzyme that builds telomeres, keeping them from getting shorter.Sounds perfect, right? There’s a catch: Telomerase also seems to fuel the growth of cancer cells that already exist in the body. Greider told The Washington Post that among the different cancer types studied by researchers, 95 percent had more of the telomerase enzyme.So it’s no longer a case of long telomeres are good, short ones are not; that’s too simple a suggestion. Clearly there are other variables at work. Do those with longer telomeres have better lifestyle habits? Can that alone naturally boost telomerase?In another study, researchers at Harvard bred mice that lacked telomerase. Without it, the mice aged prematurely and suffered from a barrage of ailments including small brain size, infertility, damaged intestines and spleens. But shortly after receiving a telomerase injection, the signs of aging were reversed and the damaged tissues repaired.Can I take a pill for that?“Reversing telomere loss has not been efficiently or safely demonstrated in humans with one exception: The supplement TA-65 has some human data that suggests it may reduce the percentage of critically short telomeres and ‘grow’ them longer,” explains David Woynarowski, M.D., co-author of “The Immortality Edge: Realize the Secrets of Your Telomeres for a Longer, Healthier Life.”TA-65 from T.A. Sciences is a neutroceutical made from the Chinese herb Astragalus membranaceus. Bottles start at $219.Not surprisingly, it’s got supporters and naysayers. “The idea of telomere accelerators is exciting and holds promise,” says Zeichner. “But we need more studies to test if they really slow aging and if they pose any safety risks.”But what do telomeres have to do with my wrinkles?Shortening telomeres happen in cells—including skin cells. As with most every recent longevity discovery (sirtuins, stem cells, DNA, the Genome Project), the cosmetic industry is eager to jump on board and apply the findings to their products in the hopes it will have positive impact on skin cells and the extrinsic aging process.In creating his new Do Not Age skincare collection ($65-$150, available in October exclusively at Sephora stores and Sephora.com), dermatologist Frederic Brandt made sure to include an ester molecule to help prolong cells’ respiratory function. The thinking: “By maintaining telomere length and protecting DNA instructions, cells stay healthy and continue to replicate,” explains Brandt.RéVive Peau Magnifique Youth Recruit is formulated with several growth factors to kickstart cell turnover and collagen synthesis, along with a healthy helping of lab-made telomerase to repair DNA fragmentation. The company recommends you think of it “as an injection of new skin.” If the $1,500 price tag is more than you want to spend on a new face, consider the neck and décolletage serum, $900, or the eye cream, $750. No one ever said beauty came cheap.Kate Somerville Age Arrest Anti-Wrinkle Cream includes peptides, a healthy dose of marine ingredients and “Telo-5 technology,” a rather ambiguous-sounding complex “based on the Nobel Prize-winning research on telomerase” that the company says “delivers a younger-looking complexion.” Skin that beams rings in at $90.The fly in the ointment: Lab-made telomerase would have to penetrate through tissue and cell walls, hooking onto chromosomal activity in order to be effective. “I have no doubt these creams can hydrate the skin and improve tone and texture, but is that happening as a result of telomere-repairing ingredients specifically?” questions Zeichner.As it stands right now, the best way to stack the cards in favor of protecting telomeres from fraying (and therefore prolonging your radiant, plump skin) is an inside-out approach. Studies show that regular exercise, managing stress and eating a vegetable-rich diet go a long, long way in keeping those flugelbinders in tact.