December 2, 2011

Confession: I Flunked The Telomeres Aging Test

Back in July, I reported on findings by Harvard University scientists about reversing age-related degeneration. Those researchers caused partial reversal of degeneration in mice by re-engineering the telomerase enzyme to lengthen the rodents' telomeres.

Other studies had suggested that length of telomeres is a possible indicator of the aging process in humans, too. This summer, I learned about a new, commercially available telomeres analysis. I took the "test" in July and got my results in September. So, why haven't I shared the results yet?

Might it have something to do with learning that my telomeres were shorter -- not longer -- than the average for my age group?   I probably would have reported the results sooner if they had showed  my telomeres were longer than average, suggesting a slower aging process. (I have to laugh at how much my reaction sounds like a typical  teenage boy's concern about comparative size. The more things change, the more they remain the same.)

In any event, at age 82, I'm not thrilled about test results that suggest I might have less time remaining than the average 82 year  old.  But I'm focusing on the research (reported at the end of this post) findings indicating that telomere length is only one, and a relatively minor one, of several factors that play a part in determining one's life span.

The impact of telomeres on aging is getting lots of attention these days. Here's why.

Chromosomes, DNA, and Telomeres
Inside the nucleus of human body cells are 46 chromosomes (23 in sex cells). Chromosomes are made up of DNA, which carries the genetic coding that tells the cell what to do. DNA replicates and copies itself  to pass information from one generation to the next.

Telomeres serve as protective caps at the end of each chromosome. They help cells continue their life-giving divisions, and prevent chromosomes from fusing together.

Every time a cell duplicates (the process is called mitosis, and enables life to continue), its protective telomeres shorten. In time, telomeres become too short for cells to divide and replicate (a condition that hastens aging and ends in death). Thus, the shorter the telomeres, the less time a cell has to live.

The enzyme telomerase helps maintain the length of telomeres, thus prolonging the life of the cell. Though not an agent in most cells, telomerase is active in stem cells, germ cells, hair follicles, and most cancer cells. (And about cancer and telomeres... if those protective caps could be shortened in tumor cells -- thereby preventing the malignant cells from duplicating -- the process could well become part of future protocols for treating cancer.)

Our understanding of telomeres and telomerase is still new. The 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine went to three scientists for their research in this area.

More on Telomeres and Aging
Studies by geneticists at the University of Utah found that individuals with short telomeres tended to have shorter life cycles and increased risk of heart disease and certain cancers. For those 60 and older, shorter telomeres increased the odds of death by heart disease by three, and death from infectious disease by a factor of eight.

Can human life be extended if we could lengthen telomeres? The Harvard study with mice suggests it might be possible.

University of Utah scientist Dr. Richard Cawthon, after dividing test subjects into two groups according to telomere length, found the half with longer telomeres lived five years longer than the other group. Cawthon cautions that the result doesn't demonstrate cause-and-effect between telomere length and life expectancy. He says telomeres could be simply a sign of aging -- like gray hair -- and not a cause of aging. As far as using the enzyme telomerase to extend cell life is concerned, Cawthon says there are questions about the enzyme's possible role in tumor development.

Still, Cawthon believes that if we could completely stop the shortening of telomeres that occurs with age, we might be able to add 10 -- perhaps 30 -- years to life!

It's not ALL about telomeres. A major factor in aging is "oxidative stress" -- the damage to DNA, proteins, and lipids caused by oxidants, which are highly reactive substances containing oxygen. These oxidants are produced normally when we breathe, but they also result from inflammation, infection, and use of alcohol and cigarettes.

Another aging factor is "glycation," which happens when the glucose we produce from food binds to some of our DNA, proteins and lipids, interfering with their normal functions. The problem worsens as we age, causing body tissues to malfunction, resulting in disease and death. (This pattern may explain animal studies that suggest substantial caloric reduction can extend life. Maybe it's time for all of us to go on a fast)

The University of Utah study suggests that all of these elements -- oxidative stress, glycation, telomere shortening, chronological age, and our genes -- work together to cause aging. For a full report on this study, see

Telomere Testing
Spectracell Laboratories is the only lab in the U.S. that offers telomeres testing. It costs $290, but I also signed up for "micronutrient analysis" ($525). The report indicated I was deficient in calcium, coenzyme Q-10, selenium, vitamin E, Vitamin K2, and Spectrox. My recap recommended I take Calcium (500 mg) twice a day, Co-Q10 (100 mg) once a day, and a special antioxidant complex that (surprise, surprise!) was available only from Spectracell.

I'll give further consideration to the micronutrient recommendation. I'll post more information about supplements soon.

I took the telomeres test out of curiosity, and because I wanted to report on it here. Independent medical authorities do not recommend the test generally, since so little is still known as of now about this fascinating area.

My results and reactions parallel those of Dr. Nancy Snyderman, who played guinea pig for the telomeres segment on NBC's The Today Show:

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