If there’s one thing that we know about the lasting impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that we really don’t know what to expect.
Sure, widespread vaccinations and record low infection rates signal a huge step in the right direction.
But there are still a ton of factors left to consider—from the risk of more virulent variants to the fate of long-haulers who continue to struggle with symptoms months after their first positive test. (A phenomenon known as “long-COVID”.)
And now, new research on COVID-19 and telomere length adds another factor to the mix…
Telomere length may predict COVID severity
Telomeres are protective protein complexes that cap your chromosomes. As you age, your telomeres shorten (making them a reliable marker of biological “old age”). And their ability to preserve your chromosome integrity weakens (ultimately leading to disease and, eventually, death).
So, in a recent study, which appeared earlier this year in the journal Aging, Spanish researchers set out to analyze the effect of telomere length on COVID-19 severity.
They looked at the telomeres of 89 hospitalized COVID-19 patients. And they found a link between shorter telomeres and more severe infections.
Of course, since average telomere length decreases with age—and older patients generally fare worse from this infection—this finding wasn’t too surprising.
But researchers found another association that they didn’t quite anticipate: Telomeres were shorter in the patients with the most serious illness versus those with milder cases. And that link held up regardless of age.
Plus, the researchers believe that short telomeres might make it harder for damaged tissues in the lungs and kidneys to regenerate… leading to serious complications that long outlast the virus. Making it all the more necessary to protect your telomeres as you age.
Long telomeres are a lifestyle
Simply put, telomeres are the closest thing to a fountain of youth… at least, where your biological age is concerned. So it’s only a matter of time before gene therapies focused on lengthening them emerge on the scene, especially in the pandemic’s aftermath.
In the meantime, though, I’ll let you in on a little secret: You don’t need cutting-edge technology to keep your own telomeres in tip-top shape. You simply need common sense.
Take the results of one small 2013 study, for instance: Researchers followed 35 men for five years. During this time, they instructed 10 of the subjects to implement a strategic combination of lifestyle changes. Namely, consuming a diet built around whole foods and rich in fruits and vegetables, and engaging in daily exercise, relaxation, and stress management (including things like regular yoga practice).
This lifestyle intervention featured three months’ worth of weekly support sessions to ensure a successful change in habits. The remaining 25 subjects, meanwhile, were asked not to change a thing. And the differences were striking.
At the end of the study, telomere length among the 25 men in the control group shortened by an average of three percent. But among the men who changed their habits, telomeres actually lengthened—by an average of ten percent!
The largest increases were among those men who were most dedicated to their new healthy lifestyle. (On a cellular level, these men actually got younger over the course of five years!)
Now, I’m always preaching the importance of following a healthy, balanced diet and staying active. So I’m happy to see research touting the benefits of both. But even more research shows that exercise is especially protective where your telomeres are concerned…
Exercise is particularly powerful
Another analysis compared the cellular life spans of sedentary and active adults, in youth as well as middle age.
Researchers found that the active middle-aged subjects—who had an average age of 51 years and ran an impressive 50 miles per week—simply looked a lot younger than their sedentary counterparts. They also had noticeably longer, more youthful telomeres.
In fact, among the older sedentary group, telomere length was cut in half compared to youthful subjects. Whereas telomere loss was 75 percent lower in older runners.3
And this isn’t the only study to reveal this association. Other research has linked aerobic fitness in middle age to telomere preservation, too.4
Granted, the active subjects in this particular study were extraordinarily fit. But that doesn’t mean you have to be a seasoned athlete to tap into the age-defying powers of exercise.
Case in point: Yet another study showed similar benefits at the bargain price of just 20 minutes of vigorous activity daily.5
There you have it. Eating well and staying active really is the not-so-secret fountain of youth. And it’s never too late to reap the rewards of positive change.
So, adopt a balanced diet full of whole foods—like lean protein, fresh produce, and nuts—and engage in moderate physical activity, to the tune of at least 150 minutes per week (which breaks down to just a little over 20 minutes daily). You really have nothing to lose… and, perhaps, a longer, healthier life to gain.
- Sanchez-Vazquez R, et al.Shorter telomere lengths in patients with severe COVID-19 disease. Aging, 2021; DOI: 10.18632/aging.202463
- “In small study, healthy lifestyle fights cell ageing.” Yahoo News. 17 Sept. 2013.
- Werner C, et al. “Abstract 1380: Beneficial Effects of Long-term Endurance Exercise on Leukocyte Telomere Biology.” Circulation. 2009; 120: S492.
- LaRocca TJ, et al. “Leukocyte telomere length is preserved with aging in endurance exercise-trained adults and related to maximal aerobic capacity.” Mech Ageing Dev. 2010 Feb;131(2):165-7.
- PutermanE, et al. “The power of exercise: buffering the effect of chronic stress on telomere length.” PLoS One. 2010 May 26;5(5):e10837.