At the ends of the chromosomes are stretches of DNA called telomeres which protect our genetic data. Telomeres have been compared with the plastic tips on shoelaces because they prevent chromosome ends from fraying and sticking to each other, which would scramble our genetic code. Each time a cell divides the telomeres get shorter and when they get too short, the cell no longer can divide and becomes inactive or dies. This process is associated with aging, cancer and a higher risk of death. Cells normally can divide only about 50 to 70 times, with telomeres getting progressively shorter until the cells become inactive or sustain genetic damage that can cause cancer.
As a cell begins to become cancerous, it divides more often, and its telomeres become very short. If its telomeres get too short, the cell may die. It can escape this fate by becoming a cancer cell and activating an enzyme called telomerase, which prevents the telomeres from getting even shorter allowing the cells to continue to divide. This telomerase enzyme adds nucleic acid bases to the ends of telomeres extending their length and thus allowing the cell to continue replicating. In young cells, telomerase keeps telomeres from wearing down too much. But as cells divide repeatedly, there is not enough telomerase, so the telomeres grow shorter and the cells age. In addition as you age and your telomeres get shorter, your body produces cells that are older and weaker – It’s programmed old age. In fact, the shorter your telomeres, the “older” your body is, regardless of your actual age. In this way, your telomeres “tell” or instruct your cells how to behave based on how old they are.
Geneticist Richard Cawthon at the University of Utah found shorter telomeres are associated with shorter lives. Among people older than 60, those with shorter telomeres were three times more likely to die from heart disease and eight times more likely to die from infectious disease.
Could we extend lifespan by preserving or restoring the length of telomeres by activating telomerase? If so, does that raise a risk the telomerase also will cause cancer? Scientists are not yet sure. But they have been able to use telomerase to make human cells keep dividing far beyond their normal limit in laboratory experiments and the cells do not become cancerous.
Many anti-aging clinics are now using a range of supplements shown to activate the telemerase enzyme to help prevent the aging process and thus age related illness by preventing telemeres from shortening. Some nutrients found to activate the telemerase enzyme include: folic acid, resveratrol, Green tea extract, Vitamin E, Vitamin D, Vitamin C, Carnosine, arginine (by increasing NO which in turn stimulates telemerase), N-acetyl-carnitine and N-acetyl-cysteine. Our laboratory has produced a combination capsule containing a number of these ingredients to help activate telomerase. Telomerase activating capsules are available online through the members section of this website.