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Newly discovered biological mechanism may affect physical functioning

Created date

November 5th, 2018
a drawing representing chromosomes as shrubs manicured into the typical X shape of a chromosome. On the far left is a health green shrub, in the center a yellow and orange bush losing leaves, and on the far right is a red bush with many leaves fallen off.

The tips of these shrubs represent shortening telomeres

Many well-known factors contribute to the decline of physical functioning that accompanies aging. Among these are physical inactivity, a poor diet, smoking, and having multiple chronic conditions.

Now researchers from Orebro University in Sweden have found another underlying factor associated with poor physical functioning: shortening telomeres.

The role of telomeres

Telomeres are DNA sequences found at the end of each of your chromosomes. They act like plastic tips on shoelaces—preventing the chromosome from fraying—and also act as a measure of a cell’s age. The shorter they are, the more damage occurs to the rest of the chromosome. Researchers already know that short telomeres are linked to high mortality and certain types of cardiovascular and metabolic disease, and their new findings suggest that short telomeres may also interfere with physical functioning such as walking, bathing, or dressing.

The Swedish researchers measured physical functioning of over 1,200 older adults from five European countries by using a daily self-assessment and by measuring handgrip. They compared those results to the length of telomeres taken from study participants’ white blood cells.

They found no significant correlation between telomere length and handgrip strength; however, they found that people with the shortest telomeres were more likely to have reduced physical functioning overall. The participants’ functioning did not seem to decline as the telomeres shortened, but rather, once a certain length was reached, the body’s cells seemed unable to repair tissues and organs efficiently.

The researchers stress that many factors could be at play that affect physical functioning, but their results could have relevance for further research about ways to prevent or slow telomere shortening.

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