December 7, 2018

Are Your Telomeres Trying To Tell You Something?

These tiny caps on the ends of our chromosomes are linked to many age-related maladies like cardiovascular diseases and dementia. Now scientists are discovering that our social connections are key.
Aric A. Prather, PhD, stresses the importance of a strong social network.

by Anne Marie O’Connor

The newest buzzword in wellness research? Telomeres, protective casings found on the ends of our chromosomes that scientists believe are key players in longevity and health. “Telomeres protect our DNA from damage and maintain genomic stability,” explains Aric A. Prather, PhD, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. Telomeres shorten each time our cells divide, which happens throughout life, not just when we’re growing, and naturally get shorter as we age. “Telomere shortening appears to be an important measure of cellular age,” he says, “and an independent predictor of the onset and progression of many age-related diseases, including cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative diseases.”

And while Prather points out that telomeres are merely one component of the many complex biological processes involved with aging, “in many studies, short telomeres appear to predict disease independent of many more traditional risk factors [chronological age, stress, obesity, smoking],” he says. “However, it is likely that short telomeres are also a consequence of many known risk factors.”

“The time frame in which telomeres grow shorter differs from person to person,” he continues. While we can’t do anything about our genetic makeup, “there is now fairly strong literature showing that proper nutrition, physical activity and sufficient sleep predict longer, healthy telomeres,” he says.

One surprising contribution to maintaining telomere length? Social connectivity. “Healthy social relationships are critical to maintaining physical health and well-being,” he says. “It’s no surprise that reports of low social support have been associated with reduced telomere length in large population studies.” A 2013 study in Psychosomatic Medicine found that not having good social support was associated with shorter telomeres in older adults. Other research has linked family conflicts, abusive relationships and other negative social interaction with shorter telomeres.

Meanwhile, a 2017 study in Psychoneuroendocrinology found that married women who reported having sex with their partner during the past week were found to have significantly longer telomeres. Put down the phone and be present with your significant other and children; keep in touch—not just by text or tweet—with other family members IRL, and cultivate friendships with people at work and in other areas of your life.

In addition to maintaining a strong social network, Prather also recommends eating well, getting enough exercise and a good night’s sleep: “My research focuses mostly on sleep,” he says, “so I would argue that the other health behaviors are challenging to execute when you get insufficient sleep, so perhaps making sleep a priority” is a good place to start. Yet another good reason to get to bed early (or sleep in tomorrow).