Telomere Length May Predict Lifespan

Dancing Lady

New studies have shown a correlation between living a healthy lifestyle and the lengthening of a person’s telomeres as a way to reverse aging. These studies promote eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of exercise and reducing stress as a way to lengthen telomeres, the small fragments of protective DNA on the end of chromosomes. As aging happens, these telomeres shorten until they are no longer able to protect the cell. But, although scientists may now see a link between the length of the telomere with health and aging, it may not be too long before they can also predict someone’s lifespan using telomere length.

A study presented at The Population Association of American 2011 Annual Meeting showed a significant connection between telomere length and the longevity of the population of the Nicoyan Peninsula region in Costa Rica. This area of Costa Rica has remarkable longevity, with rates higher than many developed countries, including the United States. The researchers drew DNA samples of 359 elderly participants during 2004 and 2006. The results of the study confirmed that, “Telomere length in Nicoya is significantly longer than in other areas, equivalent to more than a 20-year advantage in cellular aging in Nicoya, providing further support to the argument that Nicoya is indeed an exceptional longevity area.”

But, knowing exactly how long something will live is still one of science’s unsolved mysteries. Making it even more complicated for those studying longevity is the wide variation of lifespan from species to species. A study submitted to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, compared the telomere length of zebra finches from nesting age through their natural lifespan and found that the length of their telomeres was a direct indicator of how long the finch lived. More importantly, the study showed that the earlier in life the telomere length is measured, the easier it may be to predict lifespan.

In another study of telomere length and longevity, this one using mice, researchers discovered that not only is the length a key factor, but how fast telomeres are shortened becomes important when trying to determine longevity. These researchers learned that the telomeres of mice shorten 100 times faster than the telomeres of humans.  By studying how fast the percentage of shortened telomeres in mice occurred, they were able to predict the lifespan of the mice.  The research showed that the mice with the shortest lifespan were those with the faster increase in percentage of shortening telomeres. As this study suggests, the faster telomeres degenerate the sooner life will end.

Every minute of every day, the body’s cells are dividing, discharging dead cells, replacing them with new ones. But, as the years go by, the protective telomeres get shorter and shorter, through replication, degenerating until the cell is no longer able to divide and the body loses its ability to maintain itself. By lengthening telomeres or slowing down the rate they shorten, science is showing us we can determine the rate we age. Soon, science may also be able to use telomere length to predict an individual’s lifespan.

By: Lisa Nance

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