For years, telomeres have been a topic of interest due to the fact that they shorten over time. Events during early childhood might play a key role in determining the likelihood of experiencing chronic diseases during adulthood by influencing telomere dynamics. Would it therefore be possible to use telomeres as an early predictor of health outcomes?
By Sofia Siest
Telomeres are “caps” on the ends of chromosomes that protect genetic information. They shorten with each cell division until they become too short to perform their function. At that point, a cell avoids passing on potentially damaged genetic information to the next generation by halting cell division or programming its own death. This causes tissue damage and can result in premature ageing and the occurrence of diverse diseases. Shorter telomeres have been found in patients of many chronic diseases, but not necessarily in healthy people of the same age.
Until recently, it was believed that unhealthy habits in adulthood, such as chronic stress and smoking, speed up the process of telomere shortening and therefore influence health. However, scientists are now providing proof that differences in telomere length among newborns can be much bigger than the differences caused by adverse lifestyle choices in adulthood. A recent article published in Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine explains that this is most likely influenced by genetic predisposition as well as conditions during pregnancy. Maternal chronic stress, obesity, gestational diabetes and paternal age at conception are some important factors that can impact telomere length in a developing foetus. Additionally, until the age of 4, children experience a period of accelerated development and growth that demands rapid cellular division and causes faster shortening of telomere length. There is a strong possibility that the biggest differences in telomere length between individuals are created before early adulthood.
Does this mean that the likelihood of having a chronic disease is determined during childhood? It is possible that events in early life play a far more important role than we previously imagined. The dynamics of telomeres in childhood implies that the length of telomeres at birth and the rate at which they shorten can reveal considerably more about a person’s health than a single telomere measurement in adulthood. Will we eventually be able to use telomeres as biomarkers for health and disease? Only time can tell, but there is hope.
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