From new classes of drugs to natural remedies like beetroot juice, marijuana and erm, human umbilical cord blood, science has long teased us with potential solutions to that little problem we call aging. New research in the area has uncovered another way we might be able to stay young and fresh, though it won't be easy.
Many mysteries remain around the aging process in the human body, but one mechanism scientists believe they have a pretty good handle on is the role of telomeres. If you imagine a chromosome as an X-shaped unit of DNA, telomeres serve as caps at the end of each leg of the X, making sure no important DNA is spilled as the cells divide.
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As this process plays out over the years, however, it causes the telomeres to shorten, meaning that shortened telomeres correlate with older age. This key indicator has motivated research into how regulating telomeres might offer a way of slowing or even reversing biological clocks, but observing their behavior in response to different conditions is also producing some useful insights.
One recent example of this is NASA's ongoing study examining the genetic differences between astronaut Scott Kelly who lived in space for a year, and his identical twin brother Mark, who did not. Early data from the research shows that Scott's telomeres grew to be longer in space, which is the opposite of what scientists expected to happen.
Ever-shortening telomeres may be a fact of life for us here on Earth, but according to new research out of Brigham Young University, there are things we can do to pump the brakes on the shrinkage. Exercise science professor Larry Tucker analyzed data from 5,823 adults aged between 20 and 84 who took part in the CDC's National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which conveniently, is a survey that includes telomere length values for its subjects.
Also included in the survey was data on 62 different activities that the subjects engaged in over a 30-day window. This allowed Tucker to form a picture of the relationship between physical activity and telomere length. He found that the shortest telomeres were found in people who were sedentary.
Tucker describes "highly active" as 30 minutes of jogging per day five times a week for women, or 40 minutes for men. Tucker equates the longer telomeres in highly active adults to a nine-year biological aging advantage over their sedentary counterparts. Even those who were classed as "moderately active" were at a seven-year disadvantage, suggesting that an all-or-nothing approach to exercise may be a good way to go.
"If you want to see a real difference in slowing your biological aging, it appears that a little exercise won't cut it," Tucker says. "You have to work out regularly at high levels."
How exactly consistent, rigorous exercise slows down the shortening of telomeres isn't clear at this stage, though Tucker says it could possibly be related to inflammation and oxidative stress, factors that have been linked to telomere length in previous studies. Moreover, the findings throw further weight behind what we all know to be true, that exercise is good for your health in all kinds of ways.
"We know that regular physical activity helps to reduce mortality and prolong life, and now we know part of that advantage may be due to the preservation of telomeres," Tucker said.
The research was published in the journal Preventive Medicine.
Source: Brigham Young University