Have you ever wondered why women, in general, live longer than men? Seven years longer in fact. This remarkable feat is mainly to do with the length of the telomeres. This is the name given to the tiny ‘hard-helmets’ on the ends of each DNA strand. Thanks to Leonard Hayflick’s work on DNA in the 1960s, scientists now know that there is limited regeneration of each telomere over the course of the human life-span. This is called the ‘Hayflick Limit’. Telomere length at birth is similar in both genders, but women have longer telomeres later in life despite the fact that telomere length throughout life, has been shown to be hereditary from the paternal side (Nordfjäll et al., 2005). Understanding ageing science and ‘how’ we age matters – especially when it comes to the length of telomere’s. Simply because there are things that we can be doing to reduce the rate of losing our precious telomeres and our menopause transition is the time to be aware of this.
In ageing science, the length of our telomere matters. Especially for women entering post-menopause and experiencing declining levels of oestrogen. Thanks to a fairly recent study of Finnish women, (Stenback, Mutt et al., 2019), it is now known that oestrogen and higher compatibility between mitochondrial and genomic DNA have been associated with higher Telomere length in women as they age.
Which surprises me.
Because it is well known that high stress levels (both psychological and oxidative), are associated with shortened telomere length – especially in women.
If you’ve had a lot of stress over your life-time, and I not only include psychological stress in this statement, but physical stress from high amounts of exercise training too, then you might just need to change your lifestyle a bit to factor in protecting your terrific telomeres. There is a complex network influencing the maintenance and integrity of telomeres as we age, and this includes genetic, lifestyle, psychological and physiological factors.
All of these factors influence the level of inflammation that arrives as we move through menopause, and turning this around to promote healthy ageing is what I discuss in the MyMT™ programmes – our menopause transition arrives as the ‘perfect storm’ for changing levels of inflammation in the body. With increasing inflammation from not sleeping, too much or not enough exercise, the wrong diet for our health as we age, and of course, from the incredible changes to our liver, gut and muscles during menopause, these are all detrimental to the length of our telomeres. As such, the rate of the decline state in our ageing is sped up.
But the good news is, with the right approach to your lifestyle in menopause, you can ‘age-well’ and slow down the rate of telomere shortening.
How can we slow down the rate of telomere shortening as we age?
The right amount and type of physical activty matters.
I love this image of Kate who is on the Transform Me weight loss programme – she is currently over in France working as a ski-lodge manager with hubbie. The fact that the ski-fields aren’t fully operational in France, means that she has more time to explore the Alps wearing her snow-shoes. Walking and hiking up hills are more moderate forms of exercise – and this is the type that helps to protect our telomeres as we age. Once she had turned arouond her sleep, joint health and lost 12 lbs, she was on her way to understanding how to exercise moderately, but not excessively, for her lovely telomere length too.
When and if you can, you can also add in a couple of shorter sessions a week of more vigorous activity too – but as I’m always saying, only when you are sleeping all night and your joints are better. Up to 75 minutes of more vigorous activity each week helps to maintain telomere length too, especially for those who are more highly stressed. (Puterman et al., 2010). But you don’t have to run marathons or hit the gym 5 days a week. One of the challenges for women in making sense of the marketing of ‘healthy ageing’ is knowing ‘how much exercise is enough?’ and this came through strongly on my own doctoral research. Many of the women relied on advice from the fitness and sporting industries which typically position ‘healthy ageing’ in higher intensity exercise and sporting feats, but this isn’t necessary. In fact, too much exercise training is detrimental to the length of our telomeres too.
Training hours and years of practice at a professional level correlated negatively with TL in professional endurance runners (Rae et al., 2010). The same association was observed in competitive powerlifters; the TL in their vastus lateralis correlated inversely with the subject’s record in squat and deadlift (Kadi et al., 2008). These findings suggest an inverted U-shaped relationship between PA intensity and TL, with both high and low PA levels associated with shortened TL.
Stacey had this issue as well. Her passion for surf-lifesaving events led her towards the Masters event in Perth just over a week ago. Numerous emails between us, meant that not only did she cut back on some training, but she focused more on specific recovery for her ageing and changing joints and muscles. I include her heart muscle in this.
But what if you aren’t an exerciser or you can’t exercise because of your aching joints, your exhaustion or any heart health changes you are experiencing as you move through menopause?
Well, finding ways to move naturally and stay active is still important – not only to reduce the rate of telomere shortening, but to help reduce the rate of inflammation in your cells and tissues as well. This type of cellular inflammation is known as oxidative stress. Numerous studies in ageing and health, report that sedentary people over the age of 50 years (men and women) are typically ageing faster – 9 years faster in fact, based on the rate of shortening of their telomere length, compared to people who are more active. As I mentioned above, subjects exercising with moderate intensity had the longest telomeres.
Your food choices matter to telomere length.
The evidence over the past few decades that the Mediterranean Diet has emerged as an appropriate plant-centred dietary pattern that may affect women’s health as they age, to me, puts paid to any other dietary plan that women might be following. This is because ageing itself is known to be ‘inflammatory’ and as such, women moving through menopause into their ageing years, are at higher risk for shortening of the telomeres, because they are ageing. Add to this, not sleeping and/or feeling stressed and over-whelmed, then telomere shortening may be more rapid.
This is when diet becomes important.
Food compounds are known to affect the length of our telomeres. These include vitamins, Omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) which are balanced against Omega 6 foods. As well, foods high in polyphenols are known to be important for reducing the rate of telomere length – all of these types of nutrients help to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation (Preedy & Watson, 2019). I’ve spoken about these nutrients in previous articles so look on my BLOG page of the website, when you have time. One of the foods known to influence women’s health and reduce the rate of telomere length is walnuts.
I thought about walnuts this morning as I grabbed a bag of local walnuts at my local market and remembered how, a year ago, I called into one of Prince Charles’ organic shops to buy some as I travelled on my seminar tour in the UK. When we are busy and ‘on the go’ walnuts (and other nuts) not only give us energy, but new research on women’s health with age, report that walnuts especially, are rich in two types of fat called oleic acid and linoleic acid, and these both have anti-inflammatory properties. These types of fat are not only beneficial for our heart health, but also for our ageing telomeres too.
Nuts are one of the main components of plant-based food that characterise the Mediterranean Diet. Studies show that around ½ cup a day of a variety of nuts from walnuts to almonds, pistachios, peanuts and hazelnuts contain arginine (an important compound to help blood vessel dilation), folic acid (needed for ageing nerves), anti-oxidant vitamins and minerals such as calcium, potassium and magnesium (I wrote about magnesium in post-menopause HERE).
Reversing the effects of inflammation is important to all of us during our menopause and post-menopause years.
We have to also understand that menopause symptoms aren’t just about our ovaries. Lowering oestrogen affects other organs around our body as well. This is why ‘how’ we transition through menopause affects our health as we age. And for those women who are already experiencing health changes, it’s important to ‘turn back the clock’! How to achieve this is all part of the MyMT™ 12 week programmes and yes, one of the foods that I have in the brand new updated Food Guides for each programme, is walnuts.
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Preedy, V. & Watson, R. (2020). The Mediterranean Diet: an evidence-based approach. Elselvier Academic Press: London, UK.
Stenbäck, V., Mutt, S. J., Leppäluoto, J., Gagnon, D. D., Mäkelä, K. A., Jokelainen, J., Keinänen-Kiukaanniemi, S., & Herzig, K. H. (2019). Association of Physical Activity With Telomere Length Among Elderly Adults – The Oulu Cohort 1945. Frontiers in physiology, 10, 444. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2019.00444