My Telomere Journey - Dr Peter Petrie

In November 2014 I was invited to a lecture on some new technology starting to crop up in the medical journals – this new tech was called Telomeres. It turned out to be one of those rare moments in medicine when you know that the whole approach to a condition is about to change. It reminded me of when I went to my very first lecture as a young doctor on this new disease called AIDS and I realised how my medical practice would have to change. The science was impressive with 2 Nobel Prize winners working on telomeres and over 16,000 peer reviewed studies, there were articles in the press that telomeres had demonstrated how a Mediterranean diet was beneficial and telomeres had also been used to identify patients that were likely to become diabetic. One study in the US had shown children drinking fizzy drinks regularly had shorter telomeres.


So what are telomeres?

Telomeres are the ends of our chromosomes which have an essential role in protecting their integrity in the process of cellular replication. The function of telomeres is to protect chromosome ends thus ensuring the proper functionality and viability of cells. The cells are thought to be able to replicate until we are 120 years of age, but our lifestyle degrades the telomeres, shortening them and gradually shortening our life expectancy. Since around 85% of cancers and most heart disease is age related then our telomeres give us a good idea of what to expect in the future.

The next thought was how could we utilise the measuring of telomeres and identification of our true biological age, they are used in the US to help determine whether statin therapy is appropriate and they have also been used to help determine how aggressive a cancer is and therefore, what sort of therapy is an appropriate treatment. We certainly can see the value in guiding us through the difficult decision making about taking a statin for high cholesterol primarily we see telomere measuring as a good indicator as to how we are leading our life and as a motivational tool for change.

Do I want to know?

A little while after I had the opportunity to have my telomeres checked and once this became a reality it filled me with all sorts of conflicting thoughts. Did I really want to know how old my body was? Would I be able to do anything about it if it was a poor result? The more I thought about this the less inclined I was to have the test. However, once my wife and children heard about the potential from the test there was no longer a choice to be made. They were most insistent that we needed to know and would deal with whatever the outcome. There is a question about whether it really will motivate you to change and our belief is that the factual evidence this provides would be as motivational as a smoker having a heart attack – the best motivation tool for stopping smoking.

I plucked up the courage and had the test, it was a simple blood test with 2 vials of blood, there was no need to fast beforehand and the only instruction was that I shouldn’t have the test done if I was unwell at the time. Next began a period of waiting as the test is sent off to Spain and takes between 3-4 weeks for all of our telomeres and chromosomes to have their length assessed and quantified.

When my results came back to me, in reality, they should have been delivered by a clinician who is well prepared to take you through the next stage of the plan, but unfortunately I received my test results myself. And it was bad news. My body has not been wearing well and I am many years older than my chronological age. I found this quite depressing and spent the following weekend feeling low and despondent. A number of things happened thereafter. I went and checked I had adequate life insurance, shared the news with my family who were as concerned as I was but even more determined than I that things needed to change.

With the Telomere test there is an online questionnaire that you fill out about your lifestyle and the results come back highlighting areas for improvement. It suggested that I could do more exercise. Testing shows that 2 hours moderate exercise a week increases life expectancy by 5 years. I countered this by saying that I go swimming, but my wife pointed out that we couldn’t remember the last time I actually got in the pool! So the first thing I changed was to walk the dog every day and resume swimming.

The next area was our diet. I thought we had a reasonably good diet with low fat and a reasonable number of vegetables, but accompanying the telomere test we have received a book going into more detail about the dietary aspects which have been proven from telomere research to improve telomere length. This telomere testing goes beyond the family, next thing I know my wife is looking in the freezer with her friends identifying that most of the produce in there ‘has to go’. I had an interesting trip around the supermarket spending £200 on a number of new foods that we have never really considered and had no particular idea how to cook! It appears that I have been particularly bad regarding glycosylation and have far too many simple carbohydrates. We now have lentils, couscous, chickpeas and no white rice, white pasta or white bread. I am also a further £200 poorer for re-equipping our kitchen but it’s a fascinating journey. The real value of this is that my 2 boys aged 15 and 17 are so keen to understand important aspects of leading a healthier life and are learning with me. My 17 year old now produces wonderful meals of salads, lentils and couscous and we aren’t finding it difficult at all.

The next area to work on was sleep. There are many factors that affect the quality of ones sleep – stress, worry and pain being but three I identified. I have a poor sleep pattern primarily from joint pain, I now take a couple of paracetamol at night and my sleep is transformed. I have also embarked on other therapies to help easy my joint pain which is helping leaving me feeling more invigorated during the day. 

Supplements also make interesting reading with numerous supplements having shown to improve telomere lengthening. It’s quite complicated looking through the best ones to choose and sometimes I already do take the right supplement but nor in the right quantities. For example, take omega 3 fish oils, the recommendation is a staggering 3mgs a day which I expect will take some getting used to. I’ve had great help from Health & Beauty Pharmacy in Gerrards Cross who now prepare packs for the different stages recommended in the Telomere book. I am now embarking upon stage one and we will see how it goes over the next 2 months.

Stress and relaxation are also mentioned as important – studies of women with chronically disabled children have 7 years shorter telomeres. This area is going to be more of a challenge. I’m not quite sure how I’m going to tackle this one but one step at a time I guess. For now I’m concentrating on the top 20 telomere friendly foods and ensuring that I gradually introduce them into my diet. Avocados are interesting as I have avoided them for years because of their fat content, however, now we know that they have healthy monounsaturated fats and lots of vitamins – they also contain an antioxidant called beta sitosterol. There are even recipes now for chocolate mousses containing avocado so It might be more enjoyable than I first thought! Blueberries are pretty high on the list of telomere friendly foods and a half-cup serving has more antioxidant power than five servings of other fruit and vegetables. Grapefruit is a difficult one because it has been shown to reduce cholesterol by 15% however it can interact with some prescription drugs such as statins, so I will have to watch out for that. Recent research shows that if 5% of your diet is nuts then your telomeres can be up to 1.5 years longer so I have been sent off to work today with some almonds which are a fantastic source of protein, fibre and minerals, but they do need to be raw and unsalted. I tried making a smoothie yesterday with kiwi fruit, banana, blueberries and yoghurt. It was quite revolting so we kept adding more and more fruit without any improvement in taste so it’s now stored away in the freezer as a sorbet. I’ve now been sent off to purchase a juicer to add a new dimension to our endeavours. Broccoli is the one food which we have used in plenty over the years, not with any enthusiasm however and it was interesting to read that it can kill off helicobacter pylori – a common bacteria associated with stomach disorders. We have thrown out all of our sunflower oil in favour of olive oil as it’s packed with healthy monounsaturated fats as well as antioxidants and is probably the main reason why telomeres recently demonstrated that a Mediterranean style diet is associated with longevity. We have now got eggs coming out of the boy’s ears and an excellent and inexpensive source of the highest quality protein, but they need to be poached or boiled and it’s a struggle getting all this sorted out in the mad dash to get to school in the mornings.

Meat is considered to be telomere friendly, however it needs not to be processed and overcooking and burning create sugars which are bad from a glycaemic control perspective. As a rule, it’s always best to remember more water and less heat when cooking. I was a bit taken aback to read that I should be having sea vegetables as I had no idea what they would be! However, nori, the covering of sushi is a sea vegetable exceptionally high in protein and vitamin A so I have now started having sushi for lunch on occasion. 

Finally, on the top 20 list of telomere-friendly food is kale which is the richest of all leafy vegetables. The calcium in kale is thought to be more easily absorbed than the calcium in milk. I picked up a wonderful smoothie in Tesco with kale, banana and apple – keep an eye on the sugar content though.

So far I’ve not been losing a lot of weight with these dietary changes as they are focused on healthier eating rather than calorific value. I am coping with the supplements which are there to work on oxidation, glycation, inflammation and abnormal methylation. As I continue I expect the effects to become more noticeable.

Can we reverse the damage?

Simply, yes. Current studies over 5 years show a 5% improvement when changes are made. 

As important is its function in preventing serious illness. We are now studying telomeres annually as an early identifier of impending disease, in particular, shortened telomeres have been identified as an independent risk factor for detecting early breast cancer.

Contact us if you would like to discuss the test in more detail or to arrange an appointment.

Healthy-Aging Medical - £450


- Pre-test consultation and blood draw

- Online lifestyle questionnaire

- Telomere analysis (up to 4 weeks for results)

- Post-results consultation and lifestyle planning

Healthy-Aging Progress Medical £400

Optional follow-up testing if required after 9-12 months

Healthy-Aging Medical Package £800

Includes Initial medical and follow-up testing at a reduced rate.