There’s a new approach to slowing skin aging: telomere technology.
You may have already seen the telomere creams and serums coming onto the market. They promise to stop skin aging and promote radiant skin.
Let’s look more closely at this new technology and what it might be able to do for you.
What are Telomeres?
Telomeres are tiny protective caps at the ends of the DNA strands that make up our chromosomes. (You may remember from science class that chromosomes are bundles of tightly coiled DNA located inside the nucleus of every cell in the body.)
Telomeres are there to stop the ends of the chromosomes from fraying or sticking to each other, sort of like the plastic tips on the ends of your shoelaces. They are made up of thousands of copies of the same DNA sequence, bound by a set of proteins. They protect the chromosomes from damage and ensure that the cells can continue to do their jobs.
Unfortunately, every time a cell copies itself (which happens all the time), the telomeres get a little shorter, as they donate a small section of themselves to the copy. Eventually, as we get older, the telomeres can become too short to do their job, leading to cellular aging and malfunction.
The body does have a process in place to prevent the telomeres from shortening too quickly. An enzyme called telomerase acts to replenish the telomere repeat DNA sequences at the ends of chromosomes, maintaining the length of the telomere to ensure continued healthy cell activity.
How Telomeres are Connected with Aging
As you can see, as long as your telomeres are replenished and of a good length, the cells will be healthy, which means that your body and skin will likely be healthy too. But if the telomeres get short too soon, the cells will age.
In fact, telomere shortening is involved in all aspects of the aging process on a cellular level. Scientists have discovered that telomere shortening is typically linked with health complications like cardiovascular disease and neurological conditions.
A 2003 study even found a link between shorter telomeres and an increased rate of death from heart disease and infectious diseases. Shorter telomeres are also associated with an increased risk of cancer, though scientists aren’t yet sure why.
Though we all go through a natural aging process, some people go through it faster than others. This may be because:
- They were born with shorter telomeres in the first place.
- The telomere-shortening process is accelerated for some reason.
- The enzyme telomerase is not working properly to maintain telomere length.
Do Telomeres Affect Skin Aging?
The skin is our largest living organ and is made up of cells just like the rest of the body, so it makes sense that it would also be affected by the length of your telomeres.
In a 2011 study, researchers noted that telomerase is active in certain skin cells such as those in the epidermis (the outer layer of skin), with “increasing evidence” indicating that it plays a significant role in maintaining skin function and renewal. Mutations in telomerase genes resulted in several skin abnormalities.
The scientists went on to state that telomeres in skin cells may be especially vulnerable to shortening because they’re exposed to DNA-damaging agents such as UV rays and free radicals. They concluded that the skin might benefit from increasing telomerase activity and protecting telomere length, as these actions may help reduce the risk of skin diseases associated with aging.
Can We Protect Our Telomeres?
With what we know about telomeres, the question then becomes: Can we protect them? In other words, can we ensure that our telomeres stay healthy as we age?
This is still a new area of research, so we don’t have all the answers yet. Studies so far, however, have shown promise in that we may be able to slow down the telomere-shortening process.
In a small 2013 study, researchers asked 10 men with low-risk prostate cancer to follow a healthy diet, get regular exercise, and manage stress through yoga and support groups. They then compared them to 25 other men with low-risk prostate cancer who didn’t make these changes and found that five years later, the 10 men in the change group had longer telomeres than the others.
This was only a small study, but it does suggest that our lifestyle habits may affect the health of our telomeres. Other studies have shown similar results, so based on those, we can make the following recommendations.
How to Maintain Your Telomeres As You Age
Adopt these lifestyle habits, and you may help preserve your telomere length to the benefit of not only your skin but the rest of your body too.
- Eat a healthy diet. Some studies have suggested that the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, seafood, and extra virgin olive oil, may help preserve the length of telomeres.
- Get more fiber. In a 2018 study, researchers suggested that eating more fiber was linked to longer telomere length. This could be because high-fiber diets tend to reduce inflammation and oxidative stress.
- Exercise more. You know that exercise is good for you, but some studies show that those who participate in high levels of activity have longer telomeres than those who only exercise now and then. High levels of aerobic fitness and more muscle endurance are key.
- Manage your stress. Stress causes the body to release hormones that can cause oxidative stress, which damages telomeres. Indeed, some studies have found that subjects suffering from chronic stress had increased telomere shortening. Good stress-relieving activities include journaling, exercising, pet therapy, listening to calming music, meditation, yoga, tai chi, walking in nature, deep breathing, and art therapy.
Do Topical Telomere Creams Prevent Skin Aging?
In addition to following the above lifestyle recommendations, you may wonder about those new telomere creams popping up online and in department stores. Is there any chance these would help protect the telomeres in your skin, and thus delay the appearance of aging?
So far, we have few studies on the topical application of telomerase or any other substances that may protect telomeres. Some manufacturers already have these products out there, but we advise using them with caution as we just don’t know enough about them yet.
Scientists are looking into substances that can activate telomerase, however, so it could be that we’re only a few years away from enjoying these types of anti-aging products. For now it’s best to focus on an inside-out approach as noted above.
Have you heard about telomere anti-aging creams?
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Cawthon, R. M., Smith, K. R., O’Brien, E., Sivatchenko, A., & Kerber, R. A. (2003). Association between telomere length in blood and mortality in people aged 60 years or older. The Lancet, 361(9355), 393-395. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0140-6736(03)12384-7
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