How Telomeres Affect Your Lifespan


There are many things that can help us live longer. There is no single fountain of youth. In fact, I once heard it said, “If we learn to drive better won’t that help us live longer?” The answer yes. A better diet, a healthy amount of exercise, low risk activities, better behaviors, all lower your overall risk of dying. There was a knee jerk reaction to want to end that last sentence with the word prematurely, but I had to stop myself. Prematurely means that there is a prescribed time to die. Well, to the best of my knowledge, anyone born before 1896 is probably dead now. That’s by no means a guarantee, but there are a lot of people out there tracking this sort of thing. As far as life’s prescribed limit this is based largely on two factors, your genetic makeup, and where you’ve lived most of your life.

I have first hand knowledge about the power of genes to extend or shorten someone’s life. My adoptive mother had five heart attacks (that I knew about), chain smoked nearly all her life, grew up and lived her life in a big city believing that margarine was the healthiest thing on the planet until the day she died, one week after her 90th birthday. I wouldn’t say that the peripheral artery disease she suffered didn’t make the last few years a living hell, but she lived a long time, nine years past the expected life span for women in America, and she did absolutely nothing you would expect of someone trying to live a long time. She didn’t exercise. She engaged in high risk behaviors like smoking. She took zero health supplements with the exception of a multivitamin and that was only in her later years. Because I was adopted I have gene envy. One of her sisters is still going strong way past 90 and she never smoked!

The answer to why genetics keeps some people alive longer than others is also a very complicated topic. But, it leads me to talk about the little end caps on our chromosomes called telomeres. They are a bunch of DNA base pairs that seem to have no other purpose but to be a buffer during cell division. Some base pairs are lost each time a cell divides, and it appears that this is the sacrificial part of the chromosome that gives up these base pairs rather than have important genetic material suffer a loss.

When we’re embryos our telomeres contain about 15,000 base pairs. By the time we’re born that number has declined to about 10,000 and when the number has decreased to below 5,000 senescence and death are around the corner. The average cell loses 30 to 200 base pairs telomere base pairs each time it divides. And human cells divide about 50 to 70 times before they will no longer divide. This is known as the Hayflick Limit Theory. While there are several indicators of aging in our cells according to this theory this seems to be the hard and fast limit. It’s believed that our cells can only divide a certain number of times until they can divide no more. That is because the enzyme RNA polymerase just can’t get the job done of completely replicating the DNA strand. [1]

It is believed that this limit on cell division was not always the case and that early cells had no such limits and that these cellular organisms died from environmental factors. This early “germ line” or genetic ancestry is found in every living creature on Earth. But, as genetic mutation has changed us into many creatures, this same mutation has created weaknesses in our germ line. In fact, certain kinds of viruses actually embed their DNA into our own, and if it doesn’t kill you, you can pass that DNA on to your children. Over the history of the human germ line, our DNA is made up of natural mutation from the original germ line and and viruses that didn’t kill us. You’ve heard the old saying, “What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.” Well, that is true to a point, but unfortunately it has also robbed us of immortality. You can think of it as gaining who we are we had to give up something just like the Little Mermaid. OK, just making sure you were paying attention.

A 2012 study on mice with short telomere length drew the conclusion that short telomeres have a direct impact on longevity in mammals. It then makes sense that keeping telomeres from shortening in the first place would seemingly extend life. Another 2011 study actually said that lifespan could be predicted at an early age by measuring the size of the telomeres, as this size varies greatly between individuals. This study involved zebra finches since it’s difficult to do this study in long-lived mammals such as humans. [2]

That was all the bad news. Now, here is some good news. “Telomere loss can be prevented by the enzyme telomerase, a ribonucleoprotein that adds telomeric sequences to telomere ends (6). However, in long-lived mammals, after embryogenesis, telomerase is down-regulated in most somatic tissues, which is thought to have evolved as a tumor-suppressing mechanism.” [2]

Mutation, albeit a good one that suppresses tumor growth, likely did us in, according to this particular speculation. But it seems we have the ability to turn this around. Telomerase is a reverse-transcriptase enzyme, discovered by Carol Greider and Elizabeth Blackburn, that elongates the telomeres and thus corrects the normal telomere erosion (Greider and Blackburn, 1985).

By the way, the idea that telomere shortening effects lifespan has not gone undebated. This article is too short to go into the nay sayers.In brief, not every study has found a correlation between telomere length and lifespan. In fact, humans have relatively short telomere lengths compared to species with much shorter lifespans.[4]

Let it be said that one of the groups that believe that lengthening telomeres will help us live longer is Sierra Sciences ( who has announced publicly that a treatment for telomere shortening is only a year away. They also said it wouldn’t be cheap and it would be a long time until it could be made publicly available.

So until there is a publicly-available and affordable treatment for telomere shortening what can you do? Well, there is some evidence that telomere shortening increases in people living a stressful life. [3] Take up stress reducing strategies like meditation, yoga and exercise. Get a pet, get married, find a friend and so on. All of these are very good at reducing stress. There are also many stress reducing supplements on the market.

A 2014 press release said the following, “Birkmayer NADH Advises that Recent Telomere Testing at Spectracell Labs Confirms Telomere Growth.” [5] Additionally, a research team at Stanford University succeeded in using modified messenger RNA to increase the length of telomeres which allowed the cells they were studying to divide an additional 40 times. [6]

An abstract from a 2014 patent appears to have some answers. It’s a patent for a supplement to increase longevity that includes things like blue green algae, curcumin, resveratrol, silymarin, astralogus root, vitamin D, vitamin C and a bunch of other things. Here is a link to the patent.

Most importantly, get more people to sign up for this email so I can continue bringing you the results of my person search for longevity. Please direct them to and tell them to sign up to get my free report on heart health and they will automagically start receiving these wonderful emails several times a week. I will be following up with other strategies for achieving a longer life. As I said at the beginning, there are many paths to longevity. Being healthier is one of them, which is why I write so much about all the other things that can help us achieve good health while we await the results of those working diligently to deliver Ponce de Leon’s dream, the fountain of youth.

As always, live long.



  1. The rate of increase of short telomeres predicts longevity in mammals, Vera E1, Bernardes de Jesus B, Foronda M, Flores JM, Blasco MA. Cell Rep. 2012 Oct 25;2(4):732-7. doi: 10.1016/j.celrep.2012.08.023. Epub 2012 Sep 27.
  2. Telomere length in early life predicts lifespan, Britt J. Heidingera, Jonathan D. Blounta,b, Winnie Bonera, Kate Griffithsa, Neil B. Metcalfea, and Pat Monaghana, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 109 no. 5
  3. Telomeres and Telomerase, Britt J. Heidinger, 1743–1748, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1113306109
  4. João Pedro de Magalhães.
  6. J. Ramunas, E. Yakubov, J. J. Brady, S. Y. Corbel, C. Holbrook, M. Brandt, J. Stein, J. G. Santiago, J. P. Cooke, H. M. Blau. Transient delivery of modified mRNA encoding TERT rapidly extends telomeres in human cells. The FASEB Journal, 2015; DOI: 10.1096/fj.14-259531

Share this Post:

Posted by Ted Coombs

Ted Coombs
Ted Coombs is a medical anthropologist, futurist and author who is passionate about health through knowledge.