Another study has bolstered the idea that shortened telomeres—the tiny caps protecting the ends of DNA strands—can lead to increased risk of heart attack and premature death. The large-scale, long-term Danish study released today shows a direct link between telomere length and these increased risks.
The study followed almost 20,000 Danes who were participating in the Copenhagen General Population Study. It measured each individual’s telomere length from DNA samples and recorded the changes over time, with some participants being followed for up to 19 years. The researchers also recorded the incidence of myocardial infarction, ischemic heart disease and death.
"The risk of heart attack or early death is present whether your telomeres are shortened due to lifestyle or due to high age," says Clinical Professor of Genetic Epidemiology Borge Nordestgaard from the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen. Professor Nordestgaard is also a chief physician at Copenhagen University Hospital, where he and colleagues conduct large scale studies of groups of tens of thousands of Danes over several decades.
The study found that one in four Danes had telomeres that were short for their chronological age. The shortened telomeres increased the risk of heart attack by 50 percent and early death risk by 25 percent.
Why telomeres shorten
Telomeres can shorten for a variety of reasons. It has been known for years that telomeres shorten with age—in fact, three American researchers won the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine for their work on telomeres and aging. The Danish study confirmed this, showing a linear decline in length with age. The study also confirmed something that comes as no surprise: Smoking and obesity aren’t good for your telomere length, either.
“We have now shown, as has been speculated, that the increased risk is directly related to the shortening of the protective telomeres—so you can say that smoking and obesity ages the body on a cellular level, just as surely as the passing of time," Nordestgaard said.
Telomeres are sequences of amino acids that are attached to the end of individual strands of DNA and protect the genetic information contained in the strands during cellular division. When the telomeres erode away to nothing, cellular division stops, and the cell becomes decrepit. Too many decrepit cells and—well, you get the picture.
"Future studies will have to reveal the actual molecular mechanism by which the short telomere length causes heart attacks," Nordestgaard said. "Does one cause the other or is the telomere length and the coronary event both indicative of a third—yet unknown—mechanism?"
Norgestgaard said the news could open up the possibility of blood tests to assess a patient’s cellular age, giving physicians baseline information about a patient’s year-over-year health status.
Top anti-aging ingredients for healthy telomeres
The Danish study confirms in a powerful way what has been suspected for a while: If you can find a way to protect your telomeres, you can slow the process of cellular aging, and maintain a vibrant body for longer. Sixty could really be the new 30. The million-dollar question is, of course, how?
A hint is given in the parameters put forth by a new, long-term (1 year) telomere study to be conducted in the San Francisco Bay area by a group called Telome Health. Along with the usual caveats for participants—you can’t already be sick, you can’t be taking prescribed medication, etc.—there was this: You can’t be taking 1 gram or more of fish oil per day, and you can’t be taking more than three supplements on a regular basis. If these interventions with natural products weren’t having enough of a positive effect to skew the results of the study, why would the researchers specifically exclude them?
Marine-source omega-3s have been shown to be a major weapon in the fight to keep telomeres intact. William S. Harris, PhD, is an expert on omega-3s who will speak on the subject on March 7 at Nutracon in Anaheim, Calif. Harris is the director of the Cardiovascular Research Center at Stanford University and is the developer of the Omega-3 Index, giving researchers a baseline to work from.
Harris was one of the authors of a five-year study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2010 on omega-3s and their effect on telomeres. Their conclusion: Among this cohort of patients with coronary heart disease, the higher the blood level of marine omega-3 fatty acids, the slower the rate of telomere shortening.
So, take your fish oil (or krill). Check. What else?
Vitamins C, E and D
Vitamins C and E were associated with longer telomeres in a 2009 paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. An even stronger case was made for vitamin D in a 2007 article in the same journal. In that case, researchers quantified the difference: People with high vitamin D levels were judged to be five years younger on a cellular age basis than their low vitamin D counterparts.
Another natural product associated with healthy aging is resveratrol, which upregulates the sirtuin 1 protein that has been linked to telomere biology and global DNA repair. Nutrition Business Journal just gave its 2011 science award to DSM Nutritional Products for its resVida-brand resveratrol ingredient. DSM recently completed a study conducted by the Washington University School of Medicine on resVida and its effects on cardiovascular and metabolic health.