We are all far too sophisticated to be taken in by old-fashioned fortune telling techniques – reading cards or palms or the arrangement of animal entrails. But the lure of peering into our future never dies; only the nature of the windows changes. Now we hope to see a glimpse of what is coming our way through biochemistry: the arrangement of base pairs in DNA, or the packaging at the end of our chromosomes, known as telomeres.
Telomeres are the new stars of the anti-ageing firmament. They protect gene code in the chromosome so that it doesn’t get damaged. But in doing so they get fractionally shorter each time a cell divides. By middle age your telomeres are quite a bit shorter than they were as a teenager. Once they get worn right down, a cell can stop dividing altogether and organs – heart, arteries muscles – stop renewing and repairing themselves. This is ageing.
Hence the idea that having longer telomeres is a sign that you are ageing well.
So there was a flurry of media interest earlier in the year when two laboratories – one in California, the other in Spain – controversially announced that they would soon make a telomere test available to the public (although we are still waiting). Studies have certainly shown that people with longer telomeres are healthier and live longer.
For instance, a study of 780 people with heart disease found that those with the shortest telomeres had twice the risk of early death and heart failure after four and a half years than those with the longest.
What’s more, healthy habits such as exercise and having good levels of omega 3 and vitamin D have been linked with longer telomeres, while people with shorter telomeres are in situations generally considered unhealthy, such as being under a lot of pressure, having had childhood trauma or suffering prolonged depression.
Critics point out that you don’t need a test costing several hundred dollars to tell you that you’re living a healthy lifestyle or that you are far too stressed out. What you want to know is: if my telomeres are shrinking too fast, is it possible to reverse the trend and get them growing again? And even more important, will that turn back my ageing clock?
Hope that telomeres can be coaxed into a growth spurt lies with an enzyme we all have called telomerase, which can do just that. Normally it is only found in stem cells, the ones that can make other cells and so have to be able to keep dividing. Nearly a year ago, scientists at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston reported that treating the telomeres in ageing mice with telomerase not only increased their length but also resulted in a dramatic reversal in the signs and symptoms of ageing.
The brains of these elderly mice, which had been shrinking, started growing. Their coat-hair developed a youthful healthy sheen and they became fertile again. Apparently great news for octogenarians everywhere.
But it’s not quite yet time to close down old folks’ homes. These were after all mice, and quite a lot of treatments that work brilliantly in mice fail to scale up to humans. Cancer cures, for example.
And cancer is an issue here. Like the magic potion in fairy stories, telomerase has a dark side. The only other type of cell that produces telomerase is a tumour. It is what allows them to grow indefinitely. The rejuvenated old mice are being closely watched.
In the meantime, American telomere enthusiasts are putting their hope in heavy-duty lifestyle changes. The authors of a recent book, optimistically entitled The Immortality Edge, claim that telomere maintenance “will allow you to extend life span to 120 or more while leading an active robust and independent lifestyle.”
Their solution is not for the faint hearted. It combines 20 minutes-a-day of high intensity aerobics (90 seconds flat out followed by a slow 90 seconds to recover) with daily industrial-level supplement intakes: 16 or 17 pills a day. These include six grams of omega 3 fish oil, less familiar nutrients such as acetyl-L-carnitine, and high dose multivitamins, especially magnesium, potassium, vitamins C, D and E, and green tea and broccoli extracts. It would certainly make you healthier. No one yet knows what effect it would have on your telomeres.
But this is where the test could be a godsend. Have it when you start the regime and again six months later. And it might just offer you an optimistic glimpse of your future.
Further high50 reading Mid-life crisis? Cheer up chap, it’s only your andropause
Video: telomeres and ageing explained