Telomeres are the protective cap at the end of chromosomes that protect the integrity of the chromosome end. You might think of it like a band at the end of a plait of hair that stops the plait from unravelling during the activity of the day. Telomeres are more like a chain and each time the chromosome divides a segment of the telomere is lost. After a period of time the telomere becomes critically shortened and that cell does not divide successfully leading to what is called ‘cellular senescence’ or more simply, old-age. This is how we move from youth and development, to aging and deterioration which leads to eventual death.
Telomere shortening happens at different rates in different cells throughout the body. It is well established that the inflammatory processes of the immune system are detrimental to health and well being – sometimes referred to as inflammaging (Franceschi, 2007) – and is directly related to the shortening of telomeres.
Professor Needham, et al, (2014) from the University of Michigan reviewed the literature regarding depression and anxiety and telomere length. They found that there was some negative association, more so with major depression (MD) and those taking antidepressants, but not so with young adults. Their conclusion is that there is an association of shortening of telomeres in “severe depressive symptomology, as indicated by being medically treated either in a clinical setting or by psychotropic medications”. Association, however, is not necessarily a cause. Perhaps it is not about a single cause, but a system wide and dynamic debilitation?
Needham shows that shorter telomeres are also associated with conditions such as cardiovascular disease, Type 2 Diabetes, dementia, cancer and increased mortality. It may be that depression, anxiety and other affective issues are elements within a broader set of psychobiological problems that are either caused by or reflected in the shortening of telomeres. As the research of how and why this occurs continues, it might be wise to take action to benefit telomere integrity.
Telomeres are replenished in the presence of the telomere-elongating enzyme telomerase. What do we know about enhancing telomerase? Mostly the research discusses lifestyle. Ornish, et al, (2008) showed positive results from low fat, whole food, vegetarian diet plus moderate aerobic exercise, stress management and group support; Zhu, et al., (2012) found improved telomerase activity in obese Africans with Vitamin D exposure; and Lavretsky et al., (2013) found positive results with yoga meditation.
There are many more clues coming forward. We are discovering more biomarkers to indicate what is happening within us on a micro-molecular level. As we find out more of the detail, it seems we keep coming back to the same functional preventative treatment – eat well, exercise, contemplate and engage with others.
Franceschi, C. (2007) Inflammaging as a major characteristic of old people: can it be prevented or cured. Nutritional Review, 65 (Part 2): S173- S176
Lavretsky, H., Epel, E. S., Siddarth, P., Nazarian, N., Cyr, N. S., Khalsa, D. S., Lin, J., Blackburn, E., & Irwin, M. R. (2013) A pilot study of yogic meditation for family dementia caregivers with depressive symptoms: effects on mental health, cognition, and telomerase activity. International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 28(1):57-65.
Needham, B. L., Mezuk, B., Bareis, N., Lin, J., Blackburn, E. H., & Epel, E. S. (2014) Depression, anxiety and telomere length in young adults: evidence from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Molecular Psychiatry,
Ornish, D., Lin, J., Daubenmier, J., Weidner, G., Epel, E., Kemp, C., Magbanua, M.J., Marlin, R., Yglecias, L., Carroll, P.R., & Blackburn, E.H. (2008) Increased telomerase activity and comprehensive lifestyle changes: a pilot study. The Lancet Oncology. 9(11):1048-57.
Zhu, H., Guo, D., Li, K., Pedersen-White, J., Stallmann-Jorgensen, I. S., Huang, Y., Parikh, S., Liu, K., & Dong, Y. (2012) Increased telomerase activity and vitamin D supplementation in overweight African Americans. International Journal of Obesity (London), 36(6):805-9.