Lengthening telomeres: Slowing the effect of time

01/03/2019

As I reflect on the passage of time and the way it can seem to accelerate or slow down, I am moved to think about people—in the community, in my practice and in the scientific literature—who have slowed their aging process. Last week, I met one such person at a birthday party at a Rohnert Park roller skating rink. 

I’d been skating for an hour or so when a dashing, silver-haired man took the rink. He moved with a lithe grace and speed that was breathtaking and mind-boggling, and he beamed smiles and goodwill at all who watched. When it was time for the daily races, there was no contest in the 18 and older heat: he smoked the field handily.

During a break, I approached him to express my appreciation for his energy and presence, and to hear anything he wanted to share about how he came to embody such youthfulness. His name was Helmut, and as a child in Switzerland he grew up ice-skating. He took up roller-skating after moving to California in 1965 and has been taking joy in it ever since. He now skates every Sunday afternoon. Plus, he said, he does not drink, smoke or eat red meat or sweets. He notices that even five extra pounds slows him down, so he chooses modest portions. 

As Helmut spoke, I began to think about telomeres—a hot topic in medicine these days—and how nice and long his must be. Telomeres are the “caps” at the end of genetic material, like the tips of shoelaces. Like those tips, telomeres keep genes from fraying, which leads to degeneration and aging at the cellular level. Longer telomeres are associated with healthier cells, which translate into a more youthful organism. 

It is important to note that our age in years does not necessarily correlate with our cellular age, and we can lengthen our telomeres by the choices we make. 

Helmut, like other astonishingly youthful elders, had found a way of living that incorporates joy in moving on a regular basis. Like a mountain-climbing nonagenarian patient of mine and my avid-cyclist octagenarian colleague, he lives at the nexus of aerobic fitness, nourishing behaviors, and goodwill and kind-heartedness. 

The findings of studies on telomere length bear this out: longer telomeres are associated with exercise. As we say in science, however, correlation does not mean causation and, perhaps, like Helmut, people who make great choices about exercising also eat well. Maybe it is the vegetables that lead to youthful health—to be sure, that is at least part of it. 

Yet an interesting new study published in November’s European Heart Journal was designed to see exactly what effect exercise has on telomere length. The researchers recruited 124 middle-aged, healthy yet non-exercising individuals and assigned them to one of three groups. While the control group continued to refrain from exercise, one group briskly walked or jogged for 45 minutes three times a week, another “high intensity interval training” group exercised for 45 minutes in cycles of four minutes of strenuous exercise followed by four minutes of rest, three times a week, and a third group weight trained for 45 minutes three times a week. Participants’ telomere length and telomerase—the enzyme that lengthens telomeres—activity was tested at baseline and at the end of a six-month study period. 

The researchers found that although exercise of any sort improved fitness (an important component of healthy aging), those who engaged in aerobic activity in any form—walking, jogging or interval training—underwent a significant lengthening in telomeres and increase in telomerase activity. 

Resistance training did not lead to lengthened telomeres, and those who remained sedentary had telomeres that remained the same length or shortened. In summary, the aerobic exercises led to youthfulness on a cellular level.

As I welcome in the New Year and all of its possibilities, I am moved to consider how I can structure my life so that I regularly exercise—in particular, the sort of exercise that brings me bliss. Although I don’t know of any studies looking at the effect that bliss, ecstatic experiences or natural endorphins have on telomere length, I am convinced it is positive. As we say in medicine, “The best type of exercise is the kind you will do,” and bliss is a powerful reinforcer of behavior. 

Thankfully, my bliss comes from reveling in the natural world, and there are abundant opportunities to do so in West Marin. So I’ll be hiking up hills, sprinting on the beach and having spontaneous dance parties with my girls—at least thrice weekly. (I welcome loving accountability inquiries.)

Back in Rohnert Park, Helmut and I continued our conversation on the rink, where he shared another secret to his youthfulness. When he skates, he is met with appreciation and kind, open-heartedness that he feels as a rush of positive energy in his body and mind. He is experiencing the potent elixir of natural endorphins, dopamine, oxytocin and other neurohormonal mediators of the bliss that comes from movement and connection. This, he said, is what really keeps him young. 

Here is to our collective wellbeing in 2019. May we all hold each other with love and compassion, and nourish ourselves, each other, and our precious Earth.

 

Anna O’Malley practices integrative family and community medicine at the Coastal Health Alliance, and directs the Natura Institute for Ecology and Medicine in the Commonweal Garden. On Jan. 9, from 10:15 a.m. to noon, she will lead a Community Medicine Circle focused on healthy aging and cognition at the Commonweal Garden (480 Mesa Road), in Bolinas. The program, part of a monthly series, is co-sponsored by the Coastal Health Alliance and Natura Institute for Ecology and Medicine. RSVP is required to sophie@naturainstitute.org