Lab Notes

How can I protect my telomeres from shortening?

by Patricia Shelton, MD

Having learned that the shortening of telomeres is thought to be a major contributor to aging, you’re likely to be wondering how you can keep your telomeres as long as possible.  And while there are some factors associated with telomere length that you can’t control, such as your gender1, how long your parents lived2, and how difficult your childhood was3, there are quite a few things you can do to help keep your telomeres long and healthy.


The things that protect your telomeres are the things that protect your body, because anything that damages tissues causes cells to divide more in order to replace the lost and damaged cells.  You won’t be surprised by most of these recommendations.


Get enough sleep.  Adequate sleep (7 to 8 hours per night) has been associated with longer telomeres4, and disruptions to your circadian rhythm (such as shift work) have been associated with shortening them5.


Get enough exercise.  Moderate physical activity has been associated with longer telomeres6; however, getting too much can actually shorten them2, so don’t go overboard.


Control your stress levels.  Of course, this can be hard in today’s world!  But increased levels of stress have been linked to shortening of telomeres7,8, so the more you can find ways of reducing your stress or coping with it (such as through meditation), the better protected your telomeres will be.  A greater ability to cope with stress has been associated with longer telomeres in several studies9.  Seek out the help of others; social support has been linked to longer telomeres10, so protect and nuture your relationships, which may also help you control your stress.


Reduce the inflammation in your body.  Higher levels of inflammation have been associated with shorter telomeres11,12.  Food allergies are fairly common, and can be a significant source of inflammation unless the trigger foods are avoided; food allergy testing may help you identify your trigger foods if you aren’t sure.  Reducing your consumption of sugar13 and other processed carbohydrates14 can also reduce inflammation and has been shown to lengthen telomeres. 


What you do eat may be just as important as what you avoid eating.  Another important dietary component is omega-3 fatty acids, which are found at high levels in foods such as fish, olive oil, and nuts; eating more of these can help to protect your telomeres15, as they control inflammation and help your cells function optimally.  Higher levels of antioxidants, which are found in fruits and vegetables, have also been associated with longer telomeres14.


Finally, don’t smoke.  In case you needed another reason to quit or not to start, smoking is one of the factors most strongly associated with shorter telomeres7, by enough to shorten life by about seven years16.


Many of the items on this list are things you’ve heard are healthy for you.  Knowing that they protect your telomeres, literally lengthening your lifespan, might provide you with extra motivation to take care of your body.




1Gardner M, Bann D, Wiley L, et al. Gender and telomere length: systematic review and meta-analysis. Exp Gerontol. 2014 Mar;51:15-27.


2Ludlow AT, Zimmerman JB, Witkowski S, et al. Relationship between physical activity level, telomere length, and telomerase activity. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2008 Oct;40(10):1764-71.


3Chen SH, Epel ES, Mellon SH, et al. Adverse childhood experiences and leukocyte telomere maintenance in depressed and healthy adults. J Affect Disord. 2014 Dec 1;169:86-90.


4Liang G, Schernhammer E, Qi L, et al. Associations between rotating night shifts, sleep duration, and telomere length in women. PLoS One. 2011;6(8):e23462.


5Chen WD, Wen MS, Shie SS, et al. The circadian rhythm controls telomeres and telomerase activity. Biochem Biophys Res Commun. 2014 Aug 29;451(3):408-14.


6Ludlow AT, Ludlow LW, Roth SM. Do telomeres adapt to physiological stress? Exploring the effect of exercise on telomere length and telomere-related proteins. Biomed Res Int. 2013;2013:601368.


7Chen X, Velez JC, Barbosa C, et al. Smoking and perceived stress in relation to short salivary telomere length among caregivers of children with disabilities. Stress. 2014 Sep 26:1-38.


8Theall KP, Brett ZH, Shirtcliff EA, et al. Neighborhood disorder and telomeres: connecting children’s exposure to community level stress and cellular response. Soc Sci Med. 2013 May;85:50-8.


9Puterman E, Epel E. An intricate dance: Life experience, multisystem resiliency, and rate of telomere decline throughout the lifespan. Soc Personal Psychol Compass. 2012 Nov 1;6(11):807-825.


10Carroll JE, Diez-Roux AV, Fitzpatrick AL, et al. Low social support is associated with shorter leukocyte telomere length in late life: multi-ethnic study of atherosclerosis. Psychosom Med. 2013 Feb;75(2):171-7.


11Glei DA, Goldman N, Weinstein M, et al. Shorter Ends, Faster End? Leukocyte Telomere Length and Mortality Among Older Taiwanese. J Gerontol A Biol Sci Med Sci. 2014 Oct 17. pii:glu191.


12Masi S, Nightingale CM, Day IN, et al. Inflammation and not cardiovascular risk factors is associated with short leukocyte telomere length in 13- to 16-year-old adolescents. Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol. 2012 Aug;32(8):2029-34.


13Leung CW, Laraia BA, Needham BL, et al. Soda and Cell Aging: Associations Between Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption and Leukocyte Telomere Length in Healthy Adults From the National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys. Am J Public Health. 2014 Oct 16:e1-e7. [Epub ahead of print]


14Garcia-Calzon S, Moleres A, Martinez-Gonzalez MA, et al. Dietary total antioxidant capacity is associated with leukocyte telomere length in a children and adolescent population. Clin Nutr. 2014 Aug 4. pii:S0261-5614(14)00191-5.


15Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Epel ES, Belury MA, et al. Omega-3 fatty acids, oxidative stress, and leukocyte telomere length: A randomized controlled trial. Brain Behav Immun. 2013 Feb;28:16-24.


16Valdes AM, Andrew T, Gardner JP, et al. Obesity, cigarette smoking, and telomere length in women. Lancet. 2005 Aug 20-26;366(9486):662-4.