Are telomeres biological clocks?
We at Titanovo have been doing commercial telomere length testing for a few years now, so naturally we accumulated some data to look at correlations. While it’s a bit early to publish any findings in a journal, I’d like to disclose some observations and key thoughts I am starting to believe.
When we first offered our telomere length testing service, our main purpose was to offer testing for those interesting in an aging biomarker. Telomeres are correlated with age, and they tend to be longer for those with healthy lifestyles, so telomeres are naturally an interesting biomarker for competitive sportspeople as well as those wanting to improve their health.
Confirming this, we have found within our data that vegetarians and vegans have, on average, longer telomeres. So naturally it makes sense to look to move towards a fruit, vegetable and nut based diet if you’re telomeres are shorter.
But one question arose when customers began to ask for their biological age. It has always been our policy not to inform customers of their “biological age.” And why? For two reasons.
- While telomeres are correlated with age, and in large cohorts it’s shown that those with longer telomeres live longer, the individual picture isn’t equally clear. Look at the below chart, and you can see that the dispersion of telomere length by age is not just a straight line. So it is scientifically unrealistic to say someone is a certain biological age based solely on telomeres.
- There are unhealthy 55 year olds with longer telomeres of those their age (like the average telomere length of the mean 20 year old), and there are healthy 20 year olds with much shorter telomeres than those their age (with the telomere length of the mean 55 year old). It is then dangerous and depressing to make a firm statement on biological age based on telomeres alone.
For those who do wish to calculate a “biological age,” they can easily do so using our charts (seeing their telomere length, and what that length relates to). But we do not offer this number de-facto, because we feel it would be unethical to make a claim we don’t believe in.
What we do believe is that telomeres are a strong indicator of overall wellbeing, and rapidly shortening telomeres are related to an unhealthy increase in stress or decrease in healthy lifestyle. By keeping an eye on telomere length, you can get an idea on if your lifestyle is working for you.
You can learn more by reading this article by Alex Koliada who published a great review in “Frontiers of Genetics”about telomeres, which speaks of the evidence for using telomere length as an indicator of current well-being, rather than biological age.