How Long, And Well, Will You Live?

Have you ever noticed at class reunions that some of your former classmates seem much older than you, and some seem younger, even though you’re all the same age?

There’s strong evidence that your actual biological age (as opposed to your chronological age) can be determined by the length of your telomeres and the presence of specific genetic (actually epigenetic) markers in your DNA.

If you don’t know what telomeres are, stay with me. The length of our telomeres and these genetic markers can affect how long we live, and are markers for how fast we age and how much (if any) of our years are spent sick, disabled, and dependent.

In the recent Global Burden of Disease Study report, American men spend 11 years of their 76-year average life expectancy sick or disabled. For females, it’s 13 years of their 81-year life expectancy. There is a big difference between life span and what I call health span. Life span is how long we live and health span is how long we live vigorous, youthful lives. Our telomeres and other genetic markers might be the master key to not only our life span, but our health span.

What Are Telomeres?

Telomeres are protective caps on the ends of the chromosomes inside our cells. They’re there to keep the chromosomes’ ends from getting damaged when the cells divide.

When we’re born, our telomeres are nice and long. Every time a cell divides, a section of telomere breaks off, making it a little shorter. That’s normal. But when telomeres shorten too much, the cell dies before its time, or mutates. The result: We age prematurely, and we’re increasingly vulnerable to things like heart attacks, strokes, dementia, and cancer.

Other Genetic Markers of Aging

There are several other genetic markers of aging. One that is emerging the most rapidly in science is the recognition of predictable alterations in our DNA as we age.11 The most reliable are chemical tags known as methyl groups that attach to DNA in specific places. This process, known as epigenetics, affects how our DNA works to make proteins. The rate of ticking of the biological clock, as measured by these DNA changes, isn’t constant. It is faster from birth to maturity, and then slows to a constant rate around the age of 20. However, there is evidence that lifestyle and diet highly impact that rate.

So our genes, and other factors we can’t do anything about, dictate how much our telomeres shorten and how many DNA marks we acquire every year. But we have important say in the process. We can make it faster or slower, or even restore some telomere length that’s been lost.

Not that we can stay young forever, but we can turn back the clock a bit. And perhaps more importantly we can slow the aging process to a pace that’s no faster than it has to be. This means we can live healthier and sharper for as much of our allotted life as possible.

Many early studies on telomeres and genetic markers were small-scale and rather weak pilot studies. But the research is growing in scope and quality, the evidence is stronger, and frankly the lifestyle changes shown to protect and enhance telomere length have no downside. Here’s a quick rundown of the strongest evidence from large-scale, well-designed research.


We know being “fit” can reduce the risk of “age-related” diseases. But how exercise affects telomere length has been confusing.

A recent study looked at “physical activity” (rather than formal exercise) of more than 2,400 volunteers. It found that the most active people’s telomeres were as long as those of low-activity people who were 10 years younger.

But in some studies, the telomeres of people who “exercise” are shorter—biologically older.

It turns out that the effect of exercise on telomere length appears to depend on the exercise itself. If it’s extreme exercise, such as heavy weight training or endurance training of long duration (hours per day, year upon year), telomeres get shorter. In contrast, it turns out that the onset of physical degeneration (aging and all that goes with it) is significantly slowed with regular, moderate exercise, such as daily aerobic and interval training. Moderate exercise appears to support telomere length by maximizing oxygen to the tissues, without significant cell damage.


As part of the gigantic and ongoing Nurses’ Health Study, researchers looked at telomere length in almost 5,000 middle-age to older women, over nearly a decade’s time, while regularly assessing their adherence to nine aspects of a Mediterranean-type diet, including intake of vegetables (but not potatoes), fruits, nuts, whole grains, legumes, and fish, plus a high ratio of monounsaturated fats (such as olive oil) compared to saturated fats, 5 to 15 ounces of red wine daily with meals, and low intake of red meat and processed meat.

Participants with the highest scores had the longest telomeres in their age group. The diet was strong enough to overcome many other factors, which have been shown in smaller studies to shorten telomere length. Specifically, for every one-point increase or decrease of their diet score, telomere length increased or decreased by the equivalent of 1.5 years of aging.

This study really stands out because of its size and its statistical power. One limitation: Men were not included.

In a separate study of 100 middle-age and older men and women who were sedentary and overweight, telomeres were measured before and after four months of taking either a daily placebo or a daily fish oil supplement. The telomeres reflected the equivalent of a year’s reduction in age for every 1-point improvement in the omega-6-to-omega-3 ratio.

In a much larger study (608 heart disease patients) published in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), it was demonstrated that there was a very strong relationship between blood omega-3 levels and telomeric aging. The researchers initially determined the length of the telomeres in the subjects’ white blood cells and the concentration of omega-3s in their blood. They then came back five years later and measured how much shorter the telomeres had become. The results were remarkable (see the figure below from the study). 20151203 telomere vs omega levelThose people with the highest blood omega-3s had much slower telomere shortening.

If I had not been already taking a fish oil supplement, this would have been the scientific article that would have convinced me to take it every day. I want to do everything I can to look and feel younger.

Live Longer…and Healthier

Other areas that appear to improve telomere length include stress management, weight loss, stopping smoking, better sleep patterns, and getting help for mental health disorders. We need more studies before I’ll want to confirm those benefits, but shortened telomere length has been associated with over 30 different metabolic and inflammatory diseases.

We already know these factors are important for health and well-being. So there’s no reason to wait. Eat a Mediterranean-type diet rich in omega-3s and engage in some type of moderately paced interval exercise. And reap the reward of not only longer life, but better more vigorous health.

About Author

Brian Matthews

Brian Matthews is the President of Gene Smart and the leader of our Gene Smart team. His mission is to provide supplements to help you control your inflammation, your weight, and your life, based on the latest scientific information.

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