A new study suggests that the main reason women outlive is due to the protective effects of the female sex hormone estrogen on a tiny component of DNA called telomeres. Telomeres, the endcaps of DNA strands that protect chromosomes, are longer from birth in females. Researchers have long understood that telomeres are vitally important to healthy longevity. Researchers have also known that women have an advantage over men because women are born with longer telomeres, and estrogen acts as a protector and rebuilder for these telomeres.
Elissa Epel, Ph.D., a researcher and professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, conducted a study to understand why women might have a better chance at a long life from a cellular level. Her research looked at the impact of sex hormones and estrogen on telomere health, as well as the influence of reproductive health and mental health. Dr. Epel stated in her keynote address at the North American Menopause Society (NAMS) Annual Meeting, “some experimental studies suggest estrogen exposure increases the activity of telomerase, the enzyme that can protect and elongate telomeres.” However, Epel’s research is not enough for doctors to begin prescribing estrogen as a life extender because estrogen cannot always protect telomeres from damage.
Telomeres can lose length — which reduces longevity — because of stress and chronic (or childhood) psychological adversity, such as abuse. Plus, advancing age adds additional stress to the body and DNA, which can reduce telomeric length. Damaged DNA is shorter, and shorter DNA cuts years off your life. Dr. JoAnn V. Pinkerton, executive director of NAMS, states to Healthline, “There are commercial tests, but the length can vary depending on lifestyle issues. Instead of spending money on tests, I recommend you improve the health of your lifestyle.” When it comes to DNA, damage doesn’t have to be permanent. The enzyme telomerase can add protection back to your DNA strands, which can slow, prevent, and possibly reverse the telomere shortening that has already occurred. The best ways to boost telomerase and possibly gain back some of the telomeric length you’ve lost is to pursue better health.
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