Clincal Researcher and Case Manager
RCM Health Consultancy Inc.
Aging is complex process, with multiple environmental and genetic factors influencing longevity and senescence. Scientists have been interested in uncovering the secrets of longevity since the 1920’s and over the years several theories for healthy aging have been proposed. A recent conversation around the issues of employee and workplace stress prompted my renewed interest in the role of burnout in biological aging.
First, let’s talk about the difference between chronological age and biological age. Your date of birth determines your current age in years. Have you ever noticed how people of identical age don’t look or act the same? Like a 60 year old who defies age with smooth skin, high energy levels and sharp memory. This is in part due to biological age, whichis a much more complex term. As the expression indicates, biological age reflects your true health state, quality of life and life expectancy. Several factors contribute to biological aging- oxidative stress, inflammation, glycation and telomere length.
Let’s do a quick biology 101 recap before we get into more practical details. DNA consists of two strands that are twisted up and packaged to form chromosomes (blue squiggly lines in picture below) Telomeres are caps at the ends of chromosomes and have often been compared to the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces. This same analogy lends to the understanding of the function of telomeres- they prevent the ends of chromosomes from fraying and sticking to each other. Telomere length is progressively shortened as the number of cell division cycles increase during the life of an organism. This why telomere length is often considered a biomarker for biological age.
Telomerase is the enzyme that repairs telomeres and controls their length. In young cells, telomerase prevents a great deal of attrition, but as cells age, the amount of telomerase decreases, leading to shortening. Both telomere length and telomerase activity are used to measure cellular aging.
Studies have shown that telomeres may affect age-related illnesses including atherosclerotic heart disease, cancer, stroke, lung infections, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In 2003, research led by Dr. Richard Cawthon from the University of Utah established that long telomeres in individuals 60 or older were associated with a longer life, while short telomeres increased the risk of mortality from heart disease and infectious disease . Other studies have found that short telomeres are also associated with many cancers such as pancreatic, bone, lung, kidney, and prostate cancer.
Physical diseases are not the only culprits eating away at telomeres. Work-related exhaustion is caused by prolonged stress in the professional environment due to an imbalance between demands of work and the ability of an employee to cope with and control this burden. A Finnish study found that workers with severe work-related exhaustion had shorter telomeres than those with mild or no exhaustion. Even after adjusting for sociodemographic factors, smoking, body mass index, physical illness, and common mental disorders, the association between telomere length and worker’s fatigue remained statistically significant .
Although the cited studies and numerous others have shown associations of shortened telomere length with accelerated biological aging, they are not without limitations. Healthy skepticism plays an important part in science and the avid reader is encouraged to investigate further in order to facilitate critical thinking.
So how do you go about lengthening your precious telomeres? Lifestyle habits of smoking, obesity, and psychological stress are most likely to negatively affect telomere length. On the other hand, a healthy diet, regular exercise, and greater than 7 hours of sleep can reduce telomere shortening. In fact, a recent pilot study in low-risk prostate cancer patients concluded that changes in diet, exercise, stress management and social support can contribute to telomere lengthening, fewer illnesses and longer lives .
1. Cawthon RM, Smith KR, O’Brien E, Sivatchenko A, Kerber RA. Association between telomere length in blood and mortality in people aged 60 years or older. Lancet [Internet]. 2003 Feb 1;361(9355):393-5
2. Ahola K, Siren I, Kivimaki M, Ripatti S, Aromaa A, Lonnqvist J, Hovatta I. Work-related exhaustion and telomere length: A population-based study. PLoS One [Internet]. 2012;7(7):e40186.
3. Ornish D, Lin J, Chan JM, Epel E, Kemp C, Weidner G, Marlin R, Frenda SJ, Magbanua MJ, Daubenmier J, Estay I, Hills NK, Chainani-Wu N, Carroll PR, Blackburn EH. Effect of comprehensive lifestyle changes on telomerase activity and telomere length in men with biopsy-proven low-risk prostate cancer: 5-year follow-up of a descriptive pilot study. Lancet Oncol [Internet]. 2013 Oct;14(11):1112-20.