People who suffer badly from a Covid-19 infection have one thing in common—and it’s not their age or having underlying health problems.
They all tend to have much shorter telomeres, the caps on the end of DNA strands that have been closely linked to ageing.
Researchers from Spain’s National Cancer Research Centre started to suspect that severe Covid cases had short telomeres after they read that long-lasting damage to the lung and kidneys was a common legacy for the worst affected. The organs were unable to regenerate, which pointed to a telomere problem.
Telomeres protect chromosomes in cells, and each time a cell divides, its telomeres shorten until they can no longer protect the cell’s function. Once the damaged cell stops dividing, new tissue is no longer being generated. The result is bodily aging and health problems such as pulmonary fibrosis when lung tissue starts to stiffen and harden.
Fibrosis-like problems of the lungs and kidneys are common among serious Covid patients, and the Spanish researchers confirmed their suspicions when they analyzed tissue samples from 89 Covid patients who needed hospital care and reported their findings in the journal Aging in 2021.
The good news is that telomere shortening isn’t an inevitable consequence of aging. Studies have discovered that dietary changes can reverse the process, including foods such as whole grains, legumes, nuts, seaweed, and fruit while avoiding red and processed meats. Being overweight, not exercising, and chronic stress all speed up telomere shortening.
For example, Advances in Nutrition, a peer-reviewed journal, reported in 2020 that a meta-analysis of cross-sectional studies “demonstrates that higher Mediterranean Diet adherence is associated with longer telomere length.”
Raul Sanchez-Vazquez et al., “Shorter telomere lengths in patients with severe COVID-19 disease,” Aging, 2021 Jan 11;13(1):1-15.
Silvia Canudas et al., “Mediterranean Diet and Telomere Length: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis,” Advances in Nutrition 2020 (11:6):1544-1554.