In this post I’ll cover an exciting new company I discovered at the recent Quantified Self Silicon Valley Meetup Group. The company is called “Telome Health” and they are close to launching a service that will offer high quality testing for individuals who want to measure their telomere length. This is an extremely exciting service because telomere length is considered to be the most accurate predictor of an individual’s disease risk and life expectancy. According to the Telome Health website:
“Telomere length is one of the best biomarkers of overall health status. It is a major “integrator” of current and lifelong factors that impact health, including genetics, diet, fitness, toxins, and chronic stress. Knowing your telomere length (and monitoring changes over time) can provide valuable information on your disease risk – or even the rate at which you are aging. With this information, you have the knowledge to change the quality of your life and health status at a cellular level.”
Telomeres are the protective caps at the end of our DNA and they protect cells from the diseases of aging, much like the plastic tips at the end of a shoelace protect the lace from fraying. As we age, our telomeres gradually shorten and eventually reach a point where they are no longer able to protect the cell. While this is a natural part of the aging process, there are many ways that our telomeres may shrink prematurely, thereby putting us at increased risk for disease and posing a threat to our longevity. With the testing from Telome Health, an individual will theoretically be able to easily measure their telomere length using a saliva test at home, which can be sent in for analysis. With regular testing a person will be able to assess whether their lifestyle choices are having a positive or negative impact on their telomere length and make adjustments as appropriate. This information could become even more powerful when combined with biomarker data from companies like WellnessFX and genetic data from companies like 23andme.
Not surprisingly, one of the most common sources of premature telomere damage is emotional stress. This can take the form of a serious, traumatic event or in the form of prolonged, low grade stress over many years that is left unchecked. However we do have some control over telomere length and we can reverse the effects of stress and other lifestyle choices. One highly effective method is through mindfulness meditation, and one of the most comprehensive studies on the effects of mindfulness meditation on the brain to date, including effects on telomere length, has been the Shamatha Project out of UC Davis. In this study, sixty participants were randomly assigned to participate in a three-month silent meditation retreat or to a control group. Blood samples obtained at the end of the retreat revealed that telomerase activity was significantly greater in retreat participants (vs. controls) and that telomerase activity was related to meditation-induced changes in well-being.
One of the company founders is Elizabeth Blackburn from UCSF, who is credited with discovering the molecular features and mechanisms of telomerase maintenance and the enzyme telomerase and was listed by Time Magazine as one the “100 Most Influential People in the World” in 2007. Blackburn and her colleagues also received the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for “the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres and the enzyme telomerase.”
Telome Health plans to offer a saliva kit that can be ordered and used at home to collect samples, much like the 23andme DNA test. This should be an exciting tool to add to our repertoire of services that we can employ for our own health management.