Telomeres are one of today’s hottest research topics with leading researchers linking them to ageing, health and even longevity.
The field is a controversial one and some of these claims have some way to go to being proven. Telomeres are caps at the end of each strand of DNA and act as a form of protection for our chromosomes. As we age, telomeres become shorter and have less coating, in the same way a shoelace can become frayed when it losses its plastic tip.
Pharmaceutical companies are looking for drugs that can slow down the shortening of telomeres over time and, perhaps potentially, slow down some of the damage of ageing.
Putting aside the headline grabbing sound bites of a ‘longevity pill’, what do we know about lifestyle and the rate of telomere shortening over time?
Inflammation and oxidative stress are two factors connected to faster rates of telomere shortening so dietary factors that are known to counter these stresses could also be linked to longer telomeres.
In the first piece of research of its kind, researchers looked at studies that had previously collected information on both dietary patterns and telomere length of participants.
From a pool of 17 studies, two clear themes emerged. Both a Mediterranean style dietary pattern and diets high in fruits and vegetables were linked to longer telomere length. Diets high in highly refined grains, processed meat and sugar-sweetened beverages were pointing towards a shorter telomere length.
The quality of the research that informed the diet and telomere length finding was quite mixed so the conclusions should be taken as preliminary.
Whether telomeres are part of the cause of ageing and disease, or are just a marker of it, does not change the influence that the positive dietary patterns promoted in the current research can have on health.