Telomere basics and why you should measure them with TeloMe
Telomeres are the protective DNA structures at the ends of chromosomes. Over time these protective structures shorten and degrade, and the overall length distribution becomes increasingly heterogeneous. Many research publications over the past two decades have shown that shortening telomeres are a red flag for declining overall health. However, there are some substantial caveats to consider when assessing these studies and any other information relevant to telomere length.
- 1) The technologies used in the vast majority of these studies measure only average telomere length. This results in the grouping together of people who have very different telomere length distributions, including in the shorter range. Shorter telomeres might be more important determinants of function than average, so measuring average alone can be uninformative or even misleading.
- 2) Some high-quality studies using these same technologies have produced contradictory results.
- 3) Recent studies also show that telomere length and resulting risk factors are not fixed and can be altered through various interventions. However, initial reports suggest that these approaches can shift average telomere length and proportion of short telomeres in a counterintuitive manner. For example, activation of the enzyme telomerase (which lengthens telomeres) is thought to preserve cells and their functions, and published reports of studies in experimental animals show that telomerase activation by a commonly used therapy improves measures of overall health; however, telomerase activated in this manner works preferentially on very short telomeres and one result is that the relative proportion of short telomeres is increased . This increase in the proportion of the shortest telomeres causes average length to go down. In summary, average telomere length is shorter yet, according to various objective measures, health is improved. Initial reports suggest the same phenomenon occurs in people, too. These results highlight that the complexities of telomere dynamics and their effects on health are still not well understood. Nevertheless, it also shows that measuring more than just the average telomere length can provide essential information that should eventually allow us to understand the role of telomeres in health.
 The telomerase activator TA-65 elongates short telomeres and increases health span of adult/old mice without increasing cancer incidence. Bernardes de Jesus B, Schneeberger K, Vera E, Tejera A, Harley CB, Blasco MA. Aging Cell, 2011 Aug;10(4):604-21. Epub 2011 Apr 14.