You may have heard of home DNA testing and may even have sent a cheek swab or saliva sample in the mail to find out more about your ancestry or disease risk. Today, a growing number of companies are offering over-the-counter tests to measure your telomeres and provide information about your body’s aging.
What are telomeres?
Telomeres are combinations of DNA and proteins at the end of a chromosome. Similar to the plastic spikes at the ends of shoelaces, telomeres prevent DNA from “fraying” or losing genetic material. Your telomeres shorten as you age.
“Telomeres are the main biomarkers of aging,” says Juan Luis Sánchez González PhD, professor of nursing and physiotherapy at the University of Salamanca in Spain. “They are considered the clocks or timers of the cell because they mark the number of cell divisions until the cell dies.”
Some research has linked shorter telomere length to an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease And shorter lifespan. Research has also focused on altering telomere length as a way to prevent age-specific disease risk and limit the impacts of aging.
The impact of telomere length and cognitive performance or dementia risk is less clear.
In a 2022 study, González compared the telomere length of physically active women in their 60s with inactive women in the same age group and found no correlation between telomere length and cognitive performance. Separate research found shorter And longer telomeres were associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. A researcher noted the link was “inconsistent”.
“This is a new field,” says Sue Rutherford Siegel Ph.D., a genetics researcher and professor at Penn State’s Biomarker Core Lab. “We are still trying to research and identify any ramifications of telomere shortening at this stage.”
Does the telomere test work?
Some companies that offer home testing promise that your DNA will reveal your true biological age and provide insight into your cellular health. In reality, the results obtained through telomere testing may not be valid.
“It’s not like a person who has [a certain] measurement of telomere length is healthy because there is a large range [in normal telomere length]“says Siegel. “Telomeres naturally shorten with age…it’s just the natural progression of aging, but even in 60-year-olds, you’ll find a huge amount of difference between those with long and short [telomeres].”
Not only is there no standard for what constitutes “healthy” telomere length by age, but there are also several methods to assess telomere length and often wide variations in the results. Research shows that a common test, the quantitative polymerase chain reaction or qPCR test, has up to 20% variability in results and that testing on different days can lead to different results.
“Part of it is a measurement error, but other [changes to telomere length] can be a real biological regulation [or] shortening periods and lengthening compensatory periods,” says Elissa Epel PhD, co-director of the Aging, Metabolism and Emotions Center at the University of California. “Having short telomeres is simply a health risk factor [but] it only slightly increases your risk of disease. So many other factors go into your risk [like] your health behaviors and your genetics.
Given the challenges, Epel doesn’t think it’s worth investing in home telomere testing, adding, “If someone is dedicated to getting repeat measurements of telomere length, before, during and after a big lifestyle change, it could be interesting. But for me [testing] is not a priority. »
How to Preserve Telomere Length
You may not need to hand over your credit card information to find out your telomere length, but it is important to prioritize healthy habits that could preserve or improve telomere length.
A diet rich in legumes, nuts, fruits and coffee (and skipping sugary drinks, red and processed meats) might help preserve telomere length; exercise, optimal sleep and quitting smoking (or not) were also related short of telomere shortening, but Siegel notes that these are the oft-cited hallmarks of a healthy and beneficial lifestyle regardless of their impact on telomeres.
Despite a growing body of evidence, even researchers admit that more studies are needed to better understand the link between telomere length and healthy aging.
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