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How to pronounce 'telomere' and why it should be in your vocabulary
Mario Capecchi, of the Eccles Institute of Human Genetics, is the co-recipient of a grant to study telomeres and cancer. - photo by Jennifer Graham
In the future, people looking to find out how long they'll live may forgo the fortune teller and tarot-card reader and just have their telomeres measured.


Actually, they're pronounced "tee-lo-meers" by a Nobel laureate who has studied telomeres and their effects on human aging and health. (Merriam-Webster prefers teh-la-meer.)

However you say the word, telomeres are a hot topic in health these days, and some scientists believe that keeping them healthy is the key to longevity and health. A new report from NASA shows that the telomeres of astronaut Scott Kelly grew longer during a year he spent in space, but most scientists are focusing on a more down-to-earth goal: how to make telomeres longer and stronger without leaving the planet.

Telomeres are the protective tips on the end of our chromosomes; think of the aglet at the end of a shoelace or a cap on a bicycle valve, and you've got the idea. They're composed of noncoding DNA, and they get shorter every time a cell divides. When they get too short, the cell stops dividing and eventually dies.

There are about 37.2 trillion cells in the human body, so we won't notice when one passes, but the well-being of our cells determines our overall health, which is why these invisible processes are important.

While telomeres alone dont determine how how long we live, Dr. Richard Cawthon and his colleagues at the University of Utah believe that human lifespans could be extended by 10 to 30 years if we can find a way to keep telomeres from getting shorter.

Other researchers like Mario Capecchi and Simon Titen of the University of Utah, who were recently awarded $20,000 to study how telomeres thrive in cancer cells envision new treatments to slow or stop cancer through increasing knowledge of telomeres and telomerase.

And Elizabeth Blackburn, a molecular biologist who won a Nobel Prize for her collaborative work on telomeres, believes that people can cause their telomeres to grow longer, which benefits not only parents, but their children even before they are born.

Be careful, telomeres are listening

In 2009, Blackburn and two other researchers shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for their research on telomeres and on telomerase, the enzyme that forms them. Researchers are now exploring cancer treatments that might work by blocking telomerase, thus stopping or slowing the rapid division of cancer cells.

Blackburn, however, believes that telomeres are important not just to scientists, but to anyone concerned about their health, so she joined with health psychologist Elissa Epel to write a consumer-friendly book on the topic. In "The Telomere Effect," released in January, the authors warn that products claiming to lengthen or elongate telomeres have already come on the market, and some pills or creams could possibly increase the risk of getting cancer or pose other dangers.

Instead, they advocate lifestyle changes that can lengthen telomeres without risk. Among them are some familiar suggestions for better health generally: exercise more, eat better, sleep longer.

Seven hours of sleep seems to be the sweet spot when it comes to telomere length, their research suggests. A moderate amount of fitness is sufficient aim to be able to walk or jog for 45 minutes, three times a week. And as much as possible, back away from sugar.

They also argue for adopting stress-reduction techniques such as meditation and qi gong, a form of meditation combined with movement, and they encourage people to take three-minute breathing breaks throughout the day.

"To an extent that has surprised us and the rest of the scientific community, telomeres do not simply carry out the commands issued by your genetic code," they wrote. "Your telomeres, as it turns out, are listening to you. They absorb the instructions you give them."

'Aging begins in utero'

Although recent research has shown that telomeres are malleable and change throughout life, a baby's telomeres are shaped in the womb, not only through the genetic coding given by the parents, but also by the mother's pregnancy.

"The nutrients that a pregnant mother consumes, and the level of stress that she experiences, can influence her baby's telomere length. It is even possible that the parents' life histories can affect telomere length in the next generation. In a sentence: Aging begins in utero," Blackburn and Epel wrote.

A variety of studies are tumbling into scientific journals about what affects a baby's telomere length. They include one that says babies born to obese mothers have shorter telomeres, and breastfed babies have longer ones. Another recent study showed that people who had frequent diarrhea as a child had shorter telomeres in adulthood, but the authors concede that they can't prove that childhood infections caused later shortening; in fact, it could be that the babies had been born with shorter telomeres that made them prone to getting stick.

There's also a fatalistic edge to evidence on telomeres in babies. If the mother has short telomeres when she conceives, the baby's will be short, too, Blackburn and Epel reported. And there appears to be not only a link to the mother's health, but also to her levels of stress and her education. You can't get a college degree in nine months, but a pregnant woman can combat stress by doing things such as taking a yoga class, backing away from toxic relationships, and taking walks in nature, the authors said.

In early childhood, telomeres suffer from significant trauma or abuse, and grow longer when children have nurturing parents. But moderate childhood stress can actually be good for a child's telomeres, if the child has enough support during the stressful time, studies have found.

To test or not to test?

Telomere research is taking off one reason that University of Utah researchers Capecchi and Titen won a grant from the Montana-based Halt Cancer at X to study why telomeres thrive in cancer cells.

Telomeres are no longer confined to laboratories, however. Blackburn told AARP magazine that telomeres are so seeping into public consciousness that "People come up to me and say, 'Stress is having terrible effects on my telomeres.' They're using the word personally," she said.

But in fact, few people actually know how long their telomeres are. A few companies are emerging that offer telomere testing, but experts caution that because telomere length varies not only by age and race, but life experience, it's hard if not impossible to draw any conclusions from the results. In fact, Slate magazine went so far as to call the conversation about telomeres "a spurious health trend" obscured by a "data fog."

In a paper published in the journal of the European Molecular Biology Organization in 2011, Dr. Peter Lansdorp, of the British Columbia Cancer Agency, said, "The best measure of someone's age and life expectancy is the date on their birth certificate."

"Telomere length, as a biomarker, shows a clear correlation with age at the population level. For an individual, the value of telomere length is very limited. I suspect there's going to be a lot of false alarms based on biological variation as well as measurement errors using these less accurate tests," he said.

In short, save your money, eat well, exercise, stay calm and get a reasonable amount of sleep, and if you chose your parents well, you've got a good shot at health, no matter how long your telomeres are.
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