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24 January 2017

Lengthening Life without Shortening Telomeres

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Possibly the greatest martial arts expert of his time, the legendary Bruce Lee, is not only remembered for his amazing skills, but also pithy verbal treasures in the form of phrases that reflected the very essence of his philosophy of life. One of them was: “The key to immortality is first living a life worth remembering”. This concept has been mystical and idealized up to now but thanks to science, man is getting closer to achieving it each day. With good reason, the developed world can claim to be reaching an enviable pace increasing at the rate of three months per year the life expectancy of its citizens, which is something that has been unheard of in the history of mankind.

One of the main concerns of today’s society is to achieve sustainable aging, improving the quality of life of older people / credit: pixabay

On the other side of the coin, the ambitious challenge is presented of getting people to enjoy the best health conditions and best quality of life possible, especially in the years after retirement, because that is when the risk of illness increases exponentially, thereby affecting their physical and emotional independence. That is, to have an increasingly aging society will only be sustainable for states, in both economic and moral terms, if the fact of living longer is accompanied by an effort in reducing both the prevalence and the effects of different diseases like cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular and degenerative diseases, etc.

Telomeres: The great biomarker of aging

In this context, science has already shown the fundamental role of telomeres in the mechanism that regulates and controls cell viability, becoming an overall reflection of how a person is aging. Telomeres are no more than DNA and protein structures found at chromosomal ends whose main function is to protect these possible merging or degradation processes. With each cell replication, and since the replication process is imperfect and unable to replicate chromosomal ends, telomeres are shortened irretrievably. If they reach a critically short length, the division ends and the cells are driven into senescence, which usually ends with the death of the cell itself.

Graphical representation of a chromosome: GettyImages

Since Doctors Hermann Muller and Barbara McClintock discovered telomeres in the 1930s, the study has resulted in more than 21,000 scientific articles, four Nobel Prizes and a host of notable finds, for example, the relationship between telomeres and aging (discovered by Doctors Carol Greider and Calvin Harley) or the role of the telomerase enzyme in this process, which earned Doctors Blackburn, Greider and Szostak the Nobel Prize for Medicine. A long innovation path intended to emphasize that both telomere length and the level of telomere shortening are important biomarkers for human aging and serve to assess the risks of developing age-related illnesses such as cardiovascular problems, diabetes and cancer, among other diseases.

Taking part in sports, being mindful or being careful with what you eat may decrease the rate of telomere shortening / Credit: pixabay

However, what science has yet to discover is why the aging process does not affect all people equally, because, for example, while some manage to retain an enviable good health until old age, others begin to develop health problems from very young. It is known that this is a consequence of the fact that the factors that influence their evolution are very complex, dynamic and interactive, which can be summarized into three main categories: genetic inheritance, environmental factors and lifestyle. But there remains the challenge of knowing the perfect rule to slow down inexorable old age as much as possible.

Integration into personalized medicine

Telomere length, therefore, allows the biological age, as opposed to chronological age, of cells to be determined. To maintain this length, coordinated work is required both on the telomerase as well as the effects of environmental factors associated with lifestyle and work, as accelerated wear of telomeres is directly affected by negative health habits smoking, obesity, excessive alcohol intake, stress, sedentary habits and poor diet. On the flip side, it has been scientifically proven that positive health practices, such as the Mediterranean diet, vitamins and Omega-3, exercise or mindfulness, can decrease the rate of telomere shortening.

Doctors today have proven to be increasingly interested ​​in incorporating telomere testing in their practices. This is a result of both greater understanding by the medical society of the role that telomeres play in personalized medicine, such as the increase in consumer demand for integrative treatments that slow down the aging process. In this context, private companies even exist that are capable of measuring the percentage of short telomeres in individual cells, using proprietary technology (known as TAT®Telomere Analysis Technology®).

This test is actually a blood test that measures the length of thousands of individual telomeres to reveal a person’s cellular or biological age, and the age this individual shares with most people who have a similar physiology to theirs. However, by studying them valuable information is also obtained to determine the general health of the person and the possible development of chronic diseases related to aging.

Despite the experience and depth of the research conducted in the field of telomeres and aging, there is still a lot of ‘teaching’ to be done in public opinion to explain its relevance, although it is quite likely that in a few years tests like the TAT will become a routine health check for people. With good reason, the innovations in medicine that have been introduced in treating patients over recent years have been remarkable, and it is hoped that in this case, where there is an obvious effort to improve life in all aspects, it will not take long for this to emerge.

Stephen J. Matlin

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