7 Things You Need to Know About Telomeres & How They Affect Your Health

Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images

OK, so let's talk about some facts about telomeres (not to be confused with telenovelas, although I'm down to talk about those, too). I don't know about you, but I'm trying to do all I can when it comes to self-care these days — and it turns out that telomeres, which are the part of our chromosomes that hold together strands of our DNA, play a key role in our health as we grow older. Over time, your telomeres get shorter (which indicates a shorter lifespan and higher risk of some diseases) — but there are other lifestyle factors that affect the length, too. Basically though, the longer and stronger your telomeres are, the healthier your cells tend to be.

So, how does someone ensure they're keeping their telomeres as healthy and elongated as possible? Fret not: There are ways, and it all comes down to taking care of yourself the way you deserve. Here are seven facts you should know about telomeres that affect your health and aging — plus some things you can do to help preserve them, keep them healthy, and ensure you're feeling great for years to come:

1. Telomeres Work Like The Plastic Cap At The End Of A Shoelace

Ker Robertson/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

How do telomeres function? They are often compared to the plastic caps at the end of a shoelace, and in this analogy, the shoelace itself would represent a set of your DNA strands. The telomere (or shoelace cap, if we carry this on) keeps the strands of DNA (shoelace) from fraying and coming apart. Over time (and also due to various lifestyle factors), the telomere degrades and shortens, which contributes to aging.

2. Shorter Telomeres Equal A Shorter Lifespan

Sorry, it's a little morbid, but it's true. Everyone's telomeres get shorter over time — it's an inescapable part of our bodies' aging process. As time goes on and our cells naturally mature, the telomeres that protect the ends of our chromosomes get shorter and shorter, leaving our DNA more vulnerable. So it makes sense that having shorter telomeres is linked to a higher risk of certain major chronic illnesses and a shorter lifespan overall. What we can try to control, though, is avoiding having them shorten any more quickly than they naturally do.

3. Certain Foods Are Linked To A Healthier Cellular Aging Process

Steffi Loos/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Obviously eating a nutritious diet can make someone feel great, but it can also help your telomeres! A new study by the University of Michigan shows a link between what you eat and the length of your telomeres. The diets that showed the strongest link to healthy cellular aging centered around whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and plant-based proteins. While the men's results in the study showed a similar trend, the link between a healthy diet and longer telomeres was especially significant in women.

4. Stress, Smoking, And A Lack Of Sleep Can Have Major Effects

Lifestyle factors are hugely important when it comes to the length of your telomeres (and subsequently, aging). Studies show that everything from lack of sleep to smoking cigarettes can accelerate the rate at which your telomeres shorten, as can high stress levels.

5. Exercise Can Keep Your Telomeres Healthy

Again, we know exercise is good for us, but studies show that it also affects the length of your telomeres. Thankfully though, according to Elizabeth Blackburn, a Nobel prize winner and author of a book on telomeres and aging, you seemingly don't have to be a workout warrior to score the benefits. "People who do moderate aerobic exercise — about three times a week for 45 minutes — have telomeres pretty much as long as marathon runners," Blackburn told the Guardian in a 2017 interview. She also noted that people who incorporated a wider variety of exercises into their routines appeared to have longer telomeres, too.

6. Don't Be Fooled By Alleged Telomere-boosting Supplements

Joe Raedle/Getty Images News/Getty Images

While supplements that claim to lengthen your telomeres do exist, many scientists are skeptical about the effects of the various telomerase-based products available. Aforementioned author Blackburn and fellow author and scientist Elissa Epel told The Globe and Mail that even if the supplements worked they could be risky, and that it was likely more effective to simply focus on relevant lifestyle changes.

7. Meditation And Self-Care Are Musts

Numerous studies have shown that meditation is linked to having longer telomeres, and may actually be able to delay the aging process by protecting them. Meanwhile, high stress levels are shown to negatively affect the length of your telomeres, so use this as another excuse to give meditation a try and take some serious time out for self-care.