(CBS) Can being poor speed aging? How about eating poorly? A new Scottish study says yes to both questions, and the answer lies in a person's telomeres.
Which begs the question - what are telomeres? They are the cap-like molecular structures on the tips of the chromosomes that scientists say are closely linked to biological age.
"We know that people who are born with shorter telomeres than normal also have a shorter lifespan," Dr. Maria Blasco of the Spanish National Cancer Research Center in Madrid, told The Independent in May. She created a $700 test that supposedly predicts aging by measuring telomeres.
For the 10-year study - set to publish in the upcoming issue of PLoS One - researchers from the University of Glasgow compared telomere length in 382 local residents. Those who had a household income less than $41,000, their telomeres shortened by 7.7 percent over the study, while those that made more money's telomeres shortened by only 0.6 percent.
That's not all. Glaswegians who rented reduced their telomere length by 8.7 percent, compared to homeowners who only saw a 2.2 percent length reduction. Diet also contributed to telomere length. Those with poor diets shortened their telomeres by 7.7 percent, compared to healthy eaters that only saw a 1.8 percent reduction overall.
Blasco, like some experts, thinks short telomeres are linked to worse health. She told The Daily Mail that the 10 percent of the population with the shortest telomeres" have a significantly higher risk of developing a number of diseases, such as heart disease, or cognitive defects such as Alzheimer's."
What can people do if their telomeres are too short?
"There are a number of studies showing certain habits are good for slowing down shortening -- taking exercise, having plenty of omega 3 fish oils," Blasco said. She also noted it's not too late - the blood produces an enzyme called telomerase which lengthens telomeres. Scientists expect that a drug that increases telomerase will one day be released.
But not all experts agree that telomeres predict longevity. Dr. Carol Greider, a geneticist at John Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore who studies telomeres told, MSNBC that there's so much variation that a 20-year-old might have telomeres the same length as a 70-year-old.
"I would say that it is not possible to tell a person's 'biological age' from their telomere length."