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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

South Carolina Researchers Determine Inflammation Negatively Impacts Telomere Length

Over the past 10 years, researchers at the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health’s Cancer Prevention and Control Program (CPCP) have been studying the effects of chronic inflammation on the human body. During this time, they have amassed a large body of evidence that demonstrates how inflammation impacts our health (i.e., leads to early onset of chronic diseases, disability and premature death) and developed their copyrighted dietary inflammatory index (DII), which ranks foods and macronutrients according to their inflammatory properties. CPCP is even in the process of working with a new start-up company, Connecting Health Innovations LLC to convert the DII into a comprehensive set of clinical tools for use by medical professionals and their patients.

Nitin Shivappa Hebert_James2013

[Photo: Dr. Nitin Shivappa (left) and Dr. James R. Hébert]

But they haven’t stopped there. Now that CPCP researchers have established clear relationships among diet, chronic inflammation and chronic diseases, they have drilled down even further to look at how these three factors are tied to telomere length. “Like the plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces, telomeres are the protective caps on the ends of DNA and protein that prevent them from fraying,” explains Dr. Nitin Shivappa, a CPCP researcher and research faculty member in the department of epidemiology and biostatistics. “They protect the genetic data, which is important to ensure that cells can continue to divide normally.”

It’s not enough for telomeres to exist, they must maintain an adequate length in order to protect individuals from abnormal or inadequate cell division and, subsequently, adverse health consequences. “Telomeres naturally shorten over the human lifespan; however, there is considerable variability in how quickly they shorten,” says CPCP director and Health Sciences Distinguished Professor Dr. James R. Hébert. “Shorter telomeres have been associated with coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, dementia, osteoporosis and many types of cancer. Some studies have linked shorter telomeres with early death.”

Using data from one of the largest prevention studies in the world, the PREvención con DIeta MEDiterránea- NAVARRA trial (PREDIMED-NAVARRA), Drs. Shivappa and Hébert worked with Spanish colleagues to examine whether diet-related inflammation, measured using DII, could alter the rate of telomere erosion (i.e., shortening) in adults who were at high risk of cardiovascular disease. The study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, measured the telomere lengths of the 520 participants, ages 60 to 80, and then measured them again after following the anti-inflammatory Mediterranean diet for five years.

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