telomeres capping the genes

Childhood stress and exposure to violence can contribute to an earlier onset of disease in adult life, according to a new and important study. Published in the May 2012 issue of Molecular Psychiatry, researchers from Duke University worked with 236 children (about half boys and half girls) that were born between 1994 and 1995. To evaluate disease risk, they looked at the length of these children’s telomeres at 5 and 10 years of age.

Telomeres are like little caps at the ends of our genes. These caps can be thought of as little gene protectors that erode as we age. When telomeres get too short, our genes (which are the instructions our cells have to create healthy reactions in our body) can get damaged. This damage contributes extensively to disease. We already know that poor food choices, not exercising, smoking, low vitamin D levels, radiation, and diseases like diabetes all correlate with shortening, or erosion of telomeres.

Telomeres can be measured in kids quite easily by using a non-invasive test where cells are gently swabbed from the inside of the cheek. Children who were exposed to two or more violent experiences had significantly more erosion of these telomeres. Violent exposures could be frequent bullying, physical mistreatment by an adult, or exposure to domestic violence. Children with more erosion of telomeres are likely to be much more susceptible to heart disease, memory problems and many others common maladies.

Can Telomeres Get Longer?

There is positive news: Good nutrition, exercise and relaxation may in fact lengthen telomeres. A 2008 pilot study by Dean Ornish and his colleagues found that eating healthy food and making lifestyle changes which lowered psychological stress and balanced blood fats (lipids) correlated with lengthening of telomeres.

Doesn’t This Study Tell Me What I Already Know?

In a way, this research does tell us what we already know—that living healthily is good for our bodies and helps ward off disease, and that unhealthy and stressful circumstances can bring on disease sooner. The reason why this is useful information is because it tells us more about how exactly these things can help or hurt us, and should give us more motivation to make healthful changes.

Knowing more about why disease happens gives each of us more knowledge about our choices. While conventional medical wisdom still applies the axiom “it’s your genes, there is nothing you can do,” the truth is about 70% of our genetic information is controllable through diet, lifestyle, not smoking and environmental exposures. These genes, called ‘luxury genes’ are affected by epigenetic controls, meaning circumstances above the genes decide whether a ‘volume’ of particular genes get turned on or off, or how strongly they'll be expressed—think of a volume control on your stereo. Telomeres are one of these volume controls.

When I explain this idea to patients, I often find a sense of new empowerment emerges. Knowledge is power, and the more information one has about how their own body works, the more likely each of us are going to be to take more action.

Telomeres and Television?

My October 6, 2011 PT blog discussed the role of television on the brain, and how TV watching can also increase rates of disease. It is likely increased violent TV exposure in kids may have the same negative effect on telomeres in kids as does real-life exposure.

So, with this new study we are reminded that environmental circumstances play a strong role in how our genes will affect our ability to stay healthy. This may be a good time to look at the food, environmental and lifestyle exposures in our kids’ lives and think about possible positive and negative effects of other common everyday occurrences on telomeres. Any others you can think of?

Peter Bongiorno ND, LAc practices in New York, and authored Healing Depression: Integrated Naturopathic and Conventional Therapies  His new book How Come They’re Happy and I’m Not? will be out in the fall of 2012. He can be reached by visiting


Shalev I, Moffitt TE et al. Exposure to violence during childhood is associated with telomere erosion from 5 to 10 years of age: a longitudinal study. Molecular Psychiatry , 24 April 2012, doi:10.1038/mp.2012.32

Ornish D, Lin J et al. Increased telomerase activity and comprehensive lifestyle changes: a pilot study. Lancet Oncol. 2008 Nov;9(11):1048-57. Epub 2008 Sep 15.

About the Author

Peter Bongiorno

Peter Bongiorno is a naturopathic doctor and the author of Healing Depression: Integrated Naturopathic and Conventional Treatments.

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