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Providing perspectives on recent research into vitamins and nutritionals


Aging with Panache: Telomeres, Nutrition and Stress

By Michael McBurney

Telomeres are repeated nucleotide sequences which protect chromosomes during cell replication. In cell division, chromosomes are ‘read’. Having telomeres at the end to ensure the entire gene is transcribed. Similar to having an extra-long zipper in a coat which guarantees the full length of the coat is zipped up. Because some of a telomere may not get copied during replication, telomere regions become shorter as animals age. Shorter telomeres are associated with accelerated aging (Gasser & Coutre, 2013).

Suboptimal nutrition and stress contribute to accelerated aging (Aiken et al, 2013). In a new study using human cells in culture, Bull and colleagues report that folate deficiency  leads to shorter or longer telomeres; both errors contribute to chromosomal instability. Their data suggests that changes in one-carbon metabolism attributable to folate deficiency are responsible.

Folate is not the only nutrient to be associated with telomere shortening.  Many other vitamins, minerals and nutrients have been found to affect telomere length (see review by Paul, 2011). For example, increasing the plasma omega-3:omega-6 ratio by dietary fat intake was associated with longer telomere lengths in healthy sedentary overweight people (mean age 50y) (Kiecolt-Glaser et al., 2013) . And in elderly people with mild cognitive impairment, short-term supplementation leading to higher red blood cell (RBC) DHA levels was associated with reduced telomere shortening (O’Callaghan and colleagues, 2013).

While it is known that shorter telomeres are a marker of accelerated aging, much remains to be discovered to understand the effect of nutrients on telomere length in humans. It can be safely predicted however that taking steps to minimize stress and to improve nutrition will benefit cellular function and longevity. Our best advice is to try to reduce stress, eat well, and get enough sleep.

Main Citation

Bull CF, Mayrhofer G, O’Callaghan NJ, Au AYM, Pickett HA, Low GKM, Zeegers D, Hande MP, Fenech M. Folate deficiency induces dysfunctional long and short telomeres; both states are associated with hypomethylation and DNA damage in human WIL2-NS cells. 2013 Cancer Prev Res doi:10.1158/1940-6207.CAPR-13-0264

Other Citations

Aiken CE, Tarry-Adkins JL, Ozanne SE, Suboptimal nutrition in utero causes DNA damage and accelerated aging of the female reproductive tract. 2013 FASEB J doi:10.1096/fj.13-234484

Gasser SM, Le Coutre J. Nutrition and the biology of human ageing : Molecular mechanisms underlying ageing. 2013 J Nutr Health Aging doi:10.1007/s12603-013-0373-4

Paul L. Diet, nutrition and telomere length. 2011 J Nutr Bioch doi:10.1016/j.jnutbio.2010.12.001

Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Epel ES, Belury MA, Andridge R, Lin J, Glaser R, Malarkey WB, Hwang BS, Blackburn E. Omega-3 fatty acids, oxidative stress, and leukocyte telomere length: A randomized controlled trial. 2013 Brain Behav Immun doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2012.09.004

O’Callaghan N, Parletta N, Milte CM, Benassi-Evans B, Fenech M, Howe PRC. Telomere shortening in elderly people with mild cognitive impairment may be attenuated with omega-3 fatty acid supplementation: A randomized controlled pilot study. 2013 Nutr doi:10.1016/j.nut.2013.09.013