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Back To Blog > Growing Old Gracefully - Do Telomeres Hold the Key to Aging?

This post is by associate Triage Practitioner, and guest blogger, Matthew Savage 

Age is often defined as the progressive loss of physiological function (Hachmo et al, 2020) and many people feel that we should not fight this natural process. “Grow old gracefully” is a phase used regularly by those who do not believe we should fight it, but many others disagree with this notion. Millions of people seek anti-aging products every year in a bid to slow the effects of time, with the global anti-aging market estimated at $58.5 billion and growing rapidly (Ridder, 2021). Numerous Silicon-Valley executives are also putting hundreds of millions of dollars into the search for the best anti-aging methods, with a whole heap of possibilities being touted as the best solution. However, one idea that has been of real focus over the last 5 years has been the examination of telomeres and their role in the aging of our cells. Many scientists feel that these may hold the key to slowing down the aging process.

What are Telomeres?

Telomeres are DNA caps on the end of our chromosomes, which consist of the same chemical molecules (known as bases) which repeat over and over. They serve three main purposes; to help organise our chromosomes in the cells nucleus, to protect the end of our chromosomes so they do not stick together and to allow our chromosomes to replicate properly during cell division. Cell division is vital for our bodies to function correctly, with new cells replacing cells that are damage. Without telomeres, our chromosomes would lose DNA, our genes would quickly be lost and our bodies would suffer degradation and disease at a rapid rate. However, telomeres do become shorter as we age until they reach what is called the “critical length” and this leads to a programmed cell death, known as apoptosis and to age-related diseases.

However, it is not telomeres alone that are important. Telomerase is an enzyme which helps to keep our telomeres healthy and is found in very low concentrations in most of our cells, with the exceptions of stem cells and germline cells (eggs and sperm cells) where they are found in high concentrations. It is this low concentration of telomerase that leads to our cells aging. However, telomerase allows cells to keep multiplying, avoiding aging and decay, and providing protection for our telomeres for longer. This is why both the structure of telomeres and also its partner enzyme that are currently of much interest to those investigating anti-aging. 

Will Protecting Telomeres Lead to Slower Aging?

If we can stop the degradation of telomeres, it is believed our cells will last longer, continue to function correctly and will not reach their critical length, thus reducing the chance for apoptosis. Keeping our telomeres longer may protect our chromosomes and preserve their longevity by allowing our bodies to replenish tissue for longer, keeping our organs and cells healthy. For example, numerous studies have found that mice lacking in telomerase showed signs of premature aging and mice with hyper-long telomeres had less incidences of cancer and lived 24% longer (Munoz-Lorente et al, 2019). In addition to this, a recent systematic review found that this enzyme was a potentially safe treatment for aging, with minimal side-effects (Prieto-Oliveira, 2020). However, despite telomere length being a good predictor of life span, it is still unclear if shortening of telomeres is simply a sign of aging, like wrinkles, and not solely responsible for it.

What Kind of Treatments are Being Considered?

Changes in lifestyle are important, particularly in controlling our stress response, and things such as smoking and poor diet can certainly contribute to degradation of telomeres in the body. However, a number of treatments are also being developed with the aim of increasing telomere lifespan.

Telomere gene therapy – Telomere attrition is a key aspect of aging and this therapy involves the transfer of genes vital for telomere maintenance into the human body. The first attempt at this therapy was undertaken by the CEO of a Seattle-based tech firm, Elizabeth Parrish, in 2015. Parrish claimed the treatment reversed the biological age of immune cells by 20 years and increased telomere lengths in her white blood cells by 9%. This gene therapy encourages the cell to produce telomerase, the protein which repairs telomeres and thus leads to greater longevity (Mohammadi and Davis, 2016). However, there is much scepticism around the claims made by Parrish, but this does not mean that the concept of telomere gene therapy is by any means flawed. For example, telomerase has been found to be activated in 90% of cancer cells, leading to the ability of these cells to replicate at an alarming rate. By specifically switching off certain genes which produce telomerase, some studies have shown very positive results in specifically killing cancer cells (Dai et al, 2019). Thus, if this gene can be switched off, then this suggests opportunity for the opposite to occur, and a gene to be introduced, leading to telomere regeneration. 

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy - This therapy is currently used to speed up healing for carbon monoxide poisoning, tissues which have been damaged by a lack of oxygen and stubborn wounds. It involves breathing in 100% pure oxygen whilst inside a special chamber whereby the pressure is greatly increased. This increased pressure is said to help the lungs collect more oxygen and this can also lead to the regeneration of telomeres. One study by Hachmo et al (2020) found that telomere length increased by 20% following oxygen therapy, potentially due to an increase in B cells but also through the clearing of senescent cells (cells which are classed as “zombie cells” as they stop multiplying but do not die). This may have contributed to a more optimal environment for telomeres and presents an interesting opportunity for anti-aging researchers to examine.


Telomeres are being considered as potential targets for the treatment of some neurodegenerative diseases, cancers, diabetes and for various stem cell treatments. They provide a real opportunity in the battle against aging cells but a greater understanding of their function and behaviour is needed to ensure that any future therapies are scientifically tested, specifically those which entrepreneurs will try to introduce to the market. The relationship between aging and telomere shortening is still not fully understood as so many other factors are in play within the aging body.

What is important is to understand that we do have control over the shortening of our telomeres by sleeping well, eating right and reducing our stress levels. Whether or not tech companies can help us to slow that shortening is yet to be proven.

About Matt Savage

Matthew Savage is an associate Triage Practitioner, has an MSc in Psychology, is a qualified personal trainer, and has worked within the field of cognitive rehabilitation for 5 years. He is an FA qualified football coach, with a keen interest in moral behaviour and wellbeing within team sports. 


Dai W, Xu X, Wang D, Wu J, Wang J. Cancer therapy with a CRISPR-assisted telomerase-activating gene expression system. Oncogene. 2019 May;38(21):4110-4124. doi: 10.1038/s41388-019-0707-8. Epub 2019 Jan 29. PMID: 30696954.

Mohammadi D, Davis N. Can this woman cure ageing with gene therapy? 2016. The Guardian. London.

Muñoz-Lorente MA, Cano-Martin AC, Blasco MA. Mice with hyper-long telomeres show less metabolic aging and longer lifespans. Nat Commun. 2019 Oct 17;10(1):4723. doi: 10.1038/s41467-019-12664-x. PMID: 31624261; PMCID: PMC6797762.

Prieto-Oliveira P. Telomerase activation in the treatment of aging or degenerative diseases: a systematic review. Mol Cell Biochem. 2021 Feb;476(2):599-607. doi: 10.1007/s11010-020-03929-x. Epub 2020 Oct 1. PMID: 33001374.

Ridder M. Size of the anti-aging market worldwide from 2020 to 2026. 2021. Statistista.

Growing Old Gracefully


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