What Are Telomeres And Can They Predict Lifespan?

By Jane Miller
July 23, 2021

What Are Telomeres And Can They Predict Lifespan?
Image Courtesy Of Frontiers

If you had the option, would you want to know how long you might live? Or would ignorance be bliss? Some of us may have pondered this question philosophically, but it has never been an option. Now it might be. In the last decade, scientific advancements have led to emerging businesses that offer DNA kits that claim to let you know the age of your cells. Knowing your biological age can then help you get a rough idea of your lifespan.

While chronological age is how long a person has been alive, biological age is how old one’s cells are and how aged one’s body appears from an objective, scientific point of view. Finding out the biological age of a person is done by measuring the length of their telomeres, part of the chromosomes in cells. Average telomere length has been shown to correlate directly to lifespan in humans and animals, and many companies can now help you determine your biological age.

Our cells divide and replicate to keep us alive, and each time they do, the DNA is also duplicated. There is one slight change each time they replicate, and that happens to the telomeres. Telomeres are DNA structures found at the end of chromosomes – basically, end caps to our DNA. Their purpose is to help alert the cells in our bodies when to stop replicating – essentially when to die. As our cells age, the telomere lengths of those cells shorten. By measuring the length of telomeres, you can see how quickly you are aging and if they correspond to your chronological age.

Cells divide faster when stress is inflicted on our bodies. Since telomeres are on the end of the chromosome, they are especially sensitive to damage. This damage can come from stress like diseases, injuries, and even pregnancy (a fascinating discovery that makes sense because the body works doubly hard to create new life). Telomeres also get shorter from unhealthy habits such as smoking, eating too much red meat, or simply getting too little sleep.

Several companies, such as TeloYears and SpectraCell Laboratories, offer at-home kits to test your telomere length, somewhat like a DNA test. The idea behind these tests is that once you know your biological age, you can potentially slow down your aging by making lifestyle changes. Most of these telomere testing companies offer suggestions for slowing down your personal aging process.

However, the lifestyle changes recommended if you do indeed have shorter telomere lengths than optimal are pretty obvious and applicable to everyone. These changes can include things like exercise and eating more fruits and vegetables – lifestyle changes most of us know. Yes, we all realize smoking will kill us and that exercise can add years to our lives. These tests would be more helpful if they were more specific in their recommendations.

While knowing your biological age sounds intriguing for some, the efficacy of these tests is dubious for various reasons. For one thing, telomere length can change significantly over the course of even just a few months. Also, this is a relatively new industry that has cropped up after the functions of telomeres were discovered in 2009. There’s still a lot left to learn about these fascinating DNA end caps.

The bigger and perhaps more interesting question is, why don’t we always do the things that are good for us? That is another exploration in and of itself. Even if they might not always be accurate, these tests may be helpful because they give us an extra push in the right direction. Sometimes we need hard evidence to propel us into action, as is the case when a person is diagnosed with diabetes and realizes they have to change their habits. Even if there are doubts about using telomere testing to determine lifespan, they may still be worth trying simply because the results could motivate us to make impactful lifestyle changes.

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