Can dietary supplements lengthen telomeres to help you live longer?

It’s “the most important discovery in human history,” according to physician and supplement salesman Al Sears on alsearsmd.com.

The discovery? When telomeres shorten, cells age. Telomeres are snippets of DNA and protein that cap the chromosomes that house the genes in each of our cells. The discovery netted three American scientists a Nobel Prize in 2009.

Telomeres keep the DNA at the ends of our genes from fraying or sticking together. They’re most often compared to the plastic tips on shoelaces.

But unlike shoelace tips, telomeres change. “Each time a cell reproduces, its telomeres shorten a little bit, until the telomeres become so short that the cell can no longer reproduce,” explains researcher Mary Armanios of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

Dozens of studies link shorter telomeres to increased body fat and a higher risk of diabetes, heart attack, and other conditions.

“But the excitement over the possibility that telomere length could explain aging and disease should not replace the facts,” Armanios cautions. “Telomere length varies widely among people of the same age,” she notes. Some of that variation we inherit from our parents.

“Telomere length shortens in all of us as we age,” adds Armanios. “We also know that abnormally or very, very short telomeres can cause disease in the lungs, bone marrow, and liver, because we find that happens in rare cases when someone is born with a gene mutation that leads to a faster shortening of their telomeres.” (Armanios treats those patients at Johns Hopkins.)

Our daily lives can also affect our telomeres. “Things that happen to us, such as psychological stress, can shorten our telomeres at a faster rate,” says Armanios, “probably because they make our immune cells divide more often.”

But the typical shortening of telomeres in most people may not matter.

“If our telomere shortens by an extra 100 or 200 units, but we have thousands of units at the ends of our chromosomes, then it’s not clear that this is enough to cause problems,” says Armanios.

It’s not even clear that the length of our telomeres is the critical factor.

“The rate of shortening or the shortest telomere in a cell may be what’s really important, not the average length of a person’s telomeres,” says Felipe Sierra, director of the Division of Aging Biology at the National Institute on Aging in Bethesda, Maryland.

And it’s not clear that lengthening our telomeres would improve our health, adds Sierra. “Shorter telomeres may be a marker, not a cause, of disease,” he says.

Despite the uncertainty, some claim to know how to lengthen our telomeres.

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The Long and the Short of It

Dean Ornish of the University of California, San Francisco, reported last year that telomeres lengthened by an average of 10 percent in 10 men with low-risk prostate cancer who followed his lifestyle treatment program for five years. The program included a very-low-fat diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and plant protein, along with moderate exercise, stress management, and weekly support-group meetings.

Telomeres shortened by an average of 3 percent in 25 men with similar prostate cancers who weren’t in his program. But the study didn’t randomly assign men to one program or the other, so it’s possible that the men in the two groups were different in some way when they entered the study.

It’s premature to conclude that a change in lifestyle can lengthen a person’s telomeres, says Armanios.

What’s more, she adds, “our current methods for measuring the length of telomeres aren’t accurate enough to confidently say that someone’s telomeres lengthened by 10 percent or shortened by 3 percent.”

Journey Toward Profit

“Begin your journey toward enduring youth” with bottles of TA-65, an extract of the Chinese herb astragalus “that lengthens human telomeres,” beckons Al Sears on his Web site www.primalforce.net.

And bring your checkbook. A six-month supply of TA-65 costs $1,200 to $4,800, depending on how many capsules you take each day.

The evidence that it lengthens telomeres? In a company-funded study, average telomere length didn’t change in 13 older men and women who took TA-65 for 12 to 18 months. (The study didn’t compare TA-65 takers to a “control” group that took a placebo.)

However, by sifting through the data, the company found that the percentage of short telomeres in the cells of seven of the 13 participants declined during the study. In five others, the percentage remained un-changed, while in one person, it increased.

That sounds pretty random, but the company researchers somehow concluded that TA-65 “lengthens critically short telomeres.”

Four grand a little steep for an unproven supplement? For just $480 you can snag a six-month supply of Imortalium, a mixture of six vitamins, four minerals, 48 plant extracts, 11 kinds of algae, and 11 other ingredients (including resveratrol) that “helps extend the lifespan of telo¬meres,” according to youngevity.com.

Is there any evidence that taking Imortalium preserves the length of telomeres? The company couldn’t provide any.

The bottom line: It’s not clear whether you can do anything to lengthen your telomeres, or whether that would stave off disease or help you live longer.

Sources: Int. J. Obes. 38: 177, 2014; PLoS One 8: e7999s, 2013; Arterioscler. Thromb. Vasc. Biol. 32: 822, 2012; J. Clin. Invest. 123: 996, 2013; PNAS 101: 17312, 2004; Lancet Oncol. 14: 1112, 2013; Rejuvenation Research 14: 45, 2011.

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