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Aging and Your Telomeres

Age as a factor in the relationship between sleep and telomere length.

Key points

  • Telomeres offer vital protection to our cells over our lifespan.
  • The connections between telomere length and sleep are a powerful indication of the role sleep plays in longevity.
  • Scientists have found that poor sleep quality is associated with shorter telomere length.
 juan gomez/unsplash
Source: juan gomez/unsplash

Telomeres offer vital protection to our cells over our lifespan. The connections between telomere length and sleep are a powerful indication of the role sleep plays in longevity.

Age as a factor in the relationship between sleep and telomere length is one of the big questions that scientists are examining closely. Some studies of mixed-age populations suggest that the relationship between sleep and telomere length may differ at different points across our lifespan. For example, one study found that longer sleep duration was linked to longer telomere length in women younger than 50 but not in women older than 50.

Other recent research found that longer sleep duration was associated with “younger” telomeres among older adults but found no relationship between sleep duration and telomere length in middle-aged adults. And this 2016 study found that insomnia was linked to shorter telomeres in older adults (aged 70-88) but not in adults younger than 70.

Sleep quality. In most studies investigating links between sleep quality and telomere length, scientists have found that poor sleep quality is associated with shorter telomere length. These studies include groups of men and women and both middle-aged and older adults.

However, some research has reported finding no link between sleep quality and telomere length, even while finding an association between sleep duration and telomere length.

In some (but not all) research that looks at sleep quality and telomere length, the participants’ sleep quality is measured by taking information from the sleepers themselves. This self-reported sleep data is subjective—it’s a self-assessment rather than an objective measurement. Self-reported data is valuable, but one of the ways we will come to a more robust understanding of the relationship between sleep and telomeres is by more research that evaluates that relationship using objective measurements of sleep quality, including time spent in the different stages of sleep and the number of awakenings that take place throughout the night.

Sleep timing, circadian rhythms, and chronotype. This particular area of research on the sleep-telomere relationship hasn’t gotten a lot of attention to date. But it’s an important one, where I hope we’ll see some real focus in future studies. Some preliminary evidence suggests that later bedtimes and delayed circadian rhythms may be associated with shorter telomere length. Delayed circadian rhythms are individual rhythms that are out of sync and tilt significantly toward wakefulness later into the evening. Delayed circadian rhythms are common in people of all different chronotypes, thanks to stress, overloaded daily schedules, and excessive and prolonged nighttime exposure to artificial light.

This 2019 study from The Netherlands found that delayed circadian rhythms were strongly linked to shorter telomere length over a 6-year study period. Late sleep onset—falling asleep later in the evening—was also linked to shorter telomeres. The researchers found some interesting and potentially important information about chronotype. In this study, late chronotype in adulthood was linked to shorter telomeres over the 6-year timeframe. (Late chronotypes are those with a biological preference for evenings, the Wolves among us.) In assessing chronotype, the study found that very early chronotype was linked to less telomere length than intermediate (aka, middle of the road) chronotype.

Sleep apnea and other sleep disorders. There is a strong emerging connection between shorter telomeres and obstructive sleep apnea, a serious sleep disorder characterized by episodes of interrupted breathing and significantly fragmented sleep. OSA deprives us of sound sleep, reduces the body’s supply of oxygen, elevates inflammation and oxidative stress, contributing to the aging and dysfunction of our cells. OSA itself is strongly linked to higher mortality risks, accelerated biological aging, and risks for serious disease, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.

This 2019 study of 672 men and women (ages 44-84) found OSA was linked to significantly shorter telomeres. When scientists compared telomere length in people with severe OSA to people without sleep apnea, they found a dramatic difference: People with severe OSA had telomeres that indicated, on average, a 10-year acceleration of cellular aging.

Several studies have also found links between insomnia and telomere length. In some research, the connection between insomnia and shorter telomeres has appeared only in older adults, age 70 and older. But we don’t know nearly enough yet about this relationship to know whether older adults are uniquely vulnerable.

Given what we know, to date, about the associations between sleep quantity, sleep quality, and telomere length, it is not surprising to see serious sleep disorders linked to accelerated shortening of telomeres.

What does this research mean for you? We know sleep is an essential factor in longevity and helps to slow the pace of biological aging. But we are still at the relatively early stages of understanding exactly how sleep affects the biological mechanisms of aging, including the aging of our cells.

What you can do. Meet your sleep needs consistently. Individual sleep needs vary. Most adults need between 7-9 hours of sleep a night. But most adults aren’t getting sufficient rest on a routine basis.

Ensure your rest is actually restful. It’s not just the duration of your sleep but the quality that matters to longevity. Practice the fundamentals of sleep hygiene: sleeping on a consistent schedule, setting limits on caffeine, sugar, and alcohol, tending to stress, setting up a bedroom that supports your healthy rest, and keeping that bedroom clean to optimize your sleep.

Address any potential sleep disorders. The associations between telomere length and OSA are preliminary but suggest a real connection between the two. For health in the here and now and longevity down the road, don’t wait to talk with your health care provider about any issues you’re having with your sleep. Remember, problems with daytime energy levels, productivity, and performance can often be signs of a sleep disorder that’s undiagnosed.

Beyond sleep, other lifestyle habits and strategies are associated with preserving the length of telomeres. Integrating these practices into your daily life will also help your sleep.

Managing stress. A substantial body of research showing stress, both short-term and chronic, is linked to shorter telomeres.

Exercising regularly. Regular exercise is associated with longer telomeres, and it’s an association that appears to become more significant with age. Making exercise part of your daily routine and working to keep daily exercise a part of your life over the long-term is an essential investment in longevity—and sleep.

Maintain a healthy weight. Obesity has been strongly linked to shorter telomeres. There’s promising research showing that losing weight may lengthen telomeres.

Eating for longevity. Studies show that diets that emphasize vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts, seaweed, fish and seafood, and limit sugar, meat, and processed foods are associated with longer telomeres. These dietary habits align with the foods that are most helpful to sleep.

This research reveals how deeply your sleep, on a nightly basis, can affect your biology at the cellular level. That knowledge is worth taking to heart and putting into practice, making your sleep a top priority.

Sweet Dreams,

The Sleep Doctor™