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AP Photo/Kathy Willens

Chromosome Research Suggests Exercise Fights Aging

December 02, 2009 02:10 PM
by James Sullivan
Exercise has long been viewed as an important factor for maintaining health and vitality in old age. Now, its anti-aging benefits are being understood on a genetic level.

Exercise and the Genetics of Aging

A new study published in the journal Circulation has found that strenuous long-term exercise, such as endurance running, may fight the aging process through its effects on chromosomes.

The health benefits of exercise have long been accepted, but this is the first study to offer an explanation on a cellular level.

The specific effects of exercise occurred in telomeres, repetitive DNA-protein complexes on the ends of chromosomes that are believed to impact aging. The shorter telomeres become, the more quickly cells die, and therefore the shorter a person’s life becomes.

“Ulrich Laufs, the study's co-author, … said one of the key findings was that lifelong exercise was associated with a significant prevention of telomere shortening,” John Fauber wrote for the Journal Sentinel.
Last year a study of more than 2,000 twins found an association between telomere length and leisure time exercise. “It concluded that a sedentary lifestyle may accelerate the aging process as the result of telomere shortening,” Fauber wrote.

Telomeres have become the focus of increased scientific study over the past few years, and a handful of studies have made significant gains toward understanding them and their role in the aging process.

Background: Telomere research

A 2008 study showed that social, dietary and exercise-related lifestyle changes may increase telomerase, an enzyme that repairs and lengthens telomeres, and in doing so helps to slow aging.

A press release from the journal The Lancet Oncology, which published the study, reported that the data collected by Dr. Dean Ornish and his colleagues may be the first to conclude that “comprehensive lifestyle changes” significantly increase telomerase, thus improving cell health.

The 2009 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine was awarded to three American scientists—Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak—for their discovery of a “key switch in cellular ageing.” As the Nobel Foundation notes, Blackburn, Greider and Szostak were able to identify “how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase,” a discovery directly related to cancer and aging research.

Telomeres are the caps on the ends of chromosomes and telomerase is an enzyme that prevents the ends, or telomeres, from being damaged when cells replicate. According to The Associated Press, if “telomeres are shortened, cells age.” But if the enzyme telomerase is highly active, the telomeres aren’t damaged and remain healthy.

Yet the “more complex side to this picture,” Pia Ohlin writes for AFP, is that a high level of telomerase “also helps cancer, enabling its cells to replicate endlessly and achieve what scientists call ‘cellular immortality.’” Bloomberg notes that several genetic diseases have been linked to problems in telomerase activity, including aplastic anemia and some genetic lung and skin diseases. But “[t]he most intense research has been in cancer, where malignant cells have the ability to divide indefinitely, and in aging, which occurs in the cells when telomeres are shortened.”

Reference: Genetics

Chromosomes, threadlike structures of DNA and proteins that are found in the nucleus of cells, are fundamental to the study of genetics. For an introduction to genetics visit the findingDulcinea Genetics Web Guide, which provides links to the best genetics information resources on the Web.

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