Stem cells, telomeres, ageing and nutrition

telomeres and anti-aging


Extend your healthspan with a few essential insights in to how your body works, how DNA damage affects ageing, and how certain nutritional diets and lifestyles can help not only delay the ageing process, but also cut a few years off your biological age. 


Stem cells, telomeres & nutrition:
How food can turn back the hands of time

Most of us know and many of us dread the signs of ageing. We also know it's a natural process and a fact of life, but that's of little consolation when grey hairs come in and wrinkles start taking over.

In every tissue of our body, cells die when they reach the end of their lifespan. Cells in the brain, heart, and skeletal muscles live on for years, whereas cells in the skin, gut or blood are quire short-lived. The inner lining of your gut is renewed weekly, for example, while your skin is replaced entirely every month.

Stem cells and ageing

This all happens thanks to tissue-specific stem cells that continuously replace lost cells. Without these stem cells, many tissues would age prematurely. Grey hair, for instance, is a sign that the stem cells in the hair follicles are depleted, either naturally or due to exposure to stress.

However, with age, healing grows more difficult and stem cells perform worse with time for various reasons. Here are some of the hallmarks of ageing:

  • changes in the genetic code (epigenetics);
  • problems with cell-to-cell communication;
  • changes to the way proteins move within a cell (intracellular movement);
  • problems with their energy source in the mitochondria;
  • cells stop dividing altogether (senescence) due to stress, DNA damage, or telomere shortening.

DNA damage and ageing

But why is that? As stem cells divide, they replicate their DNA. Sometimes damage occurs in this replication and is passed on to daughter cells. The causes can be internal (endogenous) or external (exogenous), and here are some examples:

  • reactive products created in metabolism;
  • UV radiation;
  • tobacco carcinogens.

Unfortunately, cells also accumulate genetic damage when they divide. Our bodies have various DNA repair mechanisms in place, but not everything gets fixed. Errors slip through the cracks and build up. As we get older, these errors become more common, leading to the decline of cells and whole organs.

telomeres and ageing

Telomeres and ageing

Our DNA is neatly packaged in chromosomes. With each new division, the ends of these chromosomes shorten because DNA polymerase is unable to completely replicate the whole molecule. Telomere shortening limits life-span, so it's like a biological clock.

These 'ends' are called telomeres, and they're responsible for protecting the DNA. If telomeres become too short (telomere attrition), the cell can't divide properly (stem cell exhaustion). Ultimately, it ages and stops functioning properly. This leads to a decline in health.

Almost all the body cells are exposed to this chromosome shortening. The only known exception are cells that express an enzyme called telomerase. This enzyme repairs telomeres.

Delaying the ageing process

Could this be? Can humans delay the ageing process, or is this a wild goose chase?

food, telomeres & ageing

Two twin studies estimate that only a fraction of the lifespan has to do with genetics, while 70% to 80% is due to individual lifestyle and environment. One is a centenarian study, while the other explored the heritability of longevity.

A recent study shows that long-term calorie restrictions don't delay ageing related to telomere length in obese people. However, another study claims that nutrition and lifestyle can intervene in improving telomerase activity and restoring short telomeres in stem cells, thereby promoting the health-span of humans.

So, it's not a matter or dieting for a month or two. This will have no effect on the length of your average telomere. Rather, a complete overhaul of your lifestyle and nutritional intake may help restore the functions of the cells that matter most to you as you age: the ones that are nearing their end.

delaying the ageing process

What should I eat?

Is there such a thing as a youth elixir? Food has always been used as medicine, and so it's understandable that people will try to 'treat' ageing with food. But there's no known ingredient or food product that extends your "healthspan" on its own. However, it looks like Mediterraneans might be on to something.

This study on the anti-aging properties of the Mediterranean diet shows that, for reasons still unknown to us, Mediterraneans live longer and healthier lives than most people. Mind you, many similar studies claim the same thing.

How food can turn back the hands of time

But this particular study goes a step further to claim that it's telomere maintenance rather than extension (lengthening by telomerase) that extends the lifespan. For some reason, a Mediterranean diet is associated with this telomere maintenance.

So, here's some food for thought: what if we all had a diet high in vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, beans, cereals, grains, fish, and unsaturated fats? What if we all swapped the calories for the natural goodness?

Well, not many of us have the time or the resources to cook and buy low-calorie food every single day. But luckily, we have the next best thing: smart.food.


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