By Dennis Kravetz
Immortality is still out of reach, but scientists are making exciting discoveries right now about extending the life of human cells. We may be right around the corner to immortality.
In 1965, Leonard Hayflick, a professor from the University of California, San Francisco, discovered that cells in the human body can split and divide only 52 times. This became known as the Hayflick limit.
When a cell cannot divide anymore, it enters a phase known as senescence. Senescent cells might malfunction, become more susceptible to disease, or die. When large percentages of cells become senescent, particularly in a specific part of the body, death is certain.
However, there are some cells in the human body that are immortal. They can reproduce themselves again and again without limit. These include cancer and tumor cells, stem cell tissue, and red and white blood corpuscles, among other immune cells. Unfortunately, most of our cells–bone cells, liver cells, and heart cells, for example–are affected by the Hayflick limit.
Telomeres–the Key to Immortality
Now scientists are studying immortal cells to determine why they can split indefinitely and live on. They are trying to determine whether we can turn mortal cells into immortal cells. Recent research has found that telomeres–the “caps” that protect the ends of our chromosomes–divide in two and get shorter every time a cell clones itself by dividing. Once a telomere gets very short, the cell will reach senescence and eventually die.
On the other hand, scientists also discovered that certain factors can slow down the rate at which telomeres shorten. If we can promote telomere length in the healthy cells of our body, we can live longer. Here are four proven strategies.
A study conducted at the University of Maryland found that telomeres were significantly longer in those who engage in moderate physical activity.
The study involved men and women between 50 and 70. The study showed improvements in telomere length can be achieved at various ages, though it is certainly better if people start young, when they can preserve telomeres at their longer length.
Researchers from the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, found that women, ages 20 to 50, who had experienced years of stress from caring for a child with a serious illness such as cerebral palsy had shorter telomeres than other women of the same age. The longer the woman had been caregiving, the shorter her telomeres.
The take away is this: If you find yourself in a very stressful situation for a long time, get help if you can, and learn how to reduce stress using exercise, sleep, meditation, and other relaxation techniques.
Adopt these four lifestyle changes
Perhaps the most cited study on telomere length was conducted by Elizabeth Blackburn, Dean Ornish, and colleagues at the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. The researchers attempted to modify the lifestyles of a group of individuals for three months, and then measure the effects of those changes on their telomeres.
The factors were: (1) a diet emphasizing fruits and vegetables, low in refined sugar, with only 10 percent of total calories from fat; (2) vitamin supplements; (3) moderate daily aerobic exercise; (4) use of stress-reduction techniques. Telomerase, the enzyme that lengthens telomeres, increased 29 percent in these individuals in this short period of time. Imagine the effects if you adopted these four changes over many years!
In 2010, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that individuals with the highest level of dietary omega-3 fatty acids also had the lowest rate of telomere shortening.
Study subjects with the lowest levels of omega-3s had the fastest rate of telomere shortening. The Mayo Clinic recommends salmon, herring, and to a lesser extent tuna as great marine sources of omega-3s.
About the Author: Dennis Kravetz, a nationally renowned health and fitness expert, has devoted his lifelong career to studying and researching how to extend the human lifespan and improve the quality of one’s life with a healthy lifestyle. He’s the author of A Sound Mind in a Sound Body: Live Long, Live Healthy (KAP Books, 2013).