Would you like to discover how the actual aging of your body compares to your chronological age, or is such knowledge best left unknown?
I've almost finished reading a great book: Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters by Matt Ridley. This was first published in 1999, which is a long time ago in terms of the ongoing discoveries in this field, but the vast majority of the content remains interesting and relevant.
In particular, with regard to this column, there's a great section on telomeres. Unfortunately, the index failed me and I can't find it at the moment, so I'll have to fly by the seat of my pants (this is why I always create my own indices for my books).
As you are doubtless aware, a telomere is a region of repetitive nucleotide sequences that appear at both ends of a chromosome; the sequence TTAGGG is repeated over and over about 2,000 times. We can think of telomeres as being the equivalents to the aglets (or aiglets) -- small sheaths made from plastic or metal -- that are attached to the ends of shoelaces to protect them and stop them from fraying. In the case of our DNA, telomeres protect the ends of the chromosomes from deterioration and they also prevent neighboring chromosomes from fusing with each other.
Actually, when we say that telomeres protect the ends of the chromosomes from deterioration, this is both true and untrue, because the telomeres themselves do deteriorate, or shorten. The thing is that the biochemical "machines" that copy DNA cannot start at the very tip of a chromosome. They have to start several "words" into the "text," which means a bit of the telomere gets chopped off and the chromosome gets a little shorter every time it is duplicated. After a few hundred copyings, the telomeres have completely whittled away, at which point copies of the genes at the ends of the chromosomes start to become corrupted and the cell starts to die. Eventually, we shrug off this mortal coil and head out to the next plane of existence (sad face).
The reason I'm waffling on about this here is that I recently saw a television advert that was cajoling me to: "Discover what your DNA says about how well you're aging." This advert featured an attractive lady who, we are informed, has an actual age of 42, but whose age in "TeloYears" is only 29. The advert also said -- well, maybe implied -- that if your age in TeloYears was not what you hoped for (say you are 30 but your age in TeloYears is 60), then they may be in a position to help you rectify the situation.
Of course, a quick visit to the TeloYears.com website confirms our suspicions that what they are doing is taking your DNA sample and performing a simple genetic test that allows you to "Discover your cellular age based on your telomere length." In addition to informing you as to your own age in TeloYears, they also allow you to "Compare your result to others your age and gender." Well, if that doesn’t sound like fun, I don’t know what does!
Now, I'm quite prepared to accept that some people are chronologically older or younger than their age in TeloYears. Placing your brain and body under physical or emotional stress and strain can increase the amount of damage faced by your cells. This means your body requires more repairs, which involves cell copying, which uses up the ends of your telomeres, which means your cells start to age. By comparison, an un-abused body requires fewer repairs, which reduces cell copying, which... you get the idea.
What concerns me is where the TeloYears.com site says "Some studies have suggested that the rate of telomere shortening may be decreased, or perhaps that telomere length may even increase over time." When I hear things like "some studies" and "perhaps," the hairs on the back of my neck start to rise and metaphorical warning bells start to toll.
I'm quite prepared to believe that if you are presented with the fact that your age in TeloYears is greater than your physical age, then this may induce you to change your lifestyle, thereby reducing wear-and-tear on your body. However, I'm not aware of any current ability to increase the length of your telomeres. This isn’t to say that we won’t develop this ability over time -- telomerase is a polymerase that can add TTAGGG sequences onto the ends of one's telomeres, but the genes that make it are switched off in the developing embryo -- to the best of my knowledge, however, we don’t currently enjoy this ability.
Some time ago, I took a DNA test on Ancestry.com. The idea was to gain some insight into my origins. As I said in in a column on that topic (see Max's DNA Results Are In -- It's Worse Than We Feared!), the worst-case scenario was...
...that my DNA analysis would reveal I had some French in me. Not that there' anything wrong with being French, of course;
some of my best friends are French I once met someone from France...
It would, of course, be nice to take the TeloYear test and discover that my age in TeloYears was a sprightly 30-something (as opposed to my chronological age which is a tad higher -- I recently celebrated the 38th anniversary of my 21st birthday). But what would be the advantage to me discovering that my age in TeloYears was 90, for example. I doubt this would cheer me up. On the other hand, it might provide an excuse to drink more beer, and that would cheer me up (I used to worry that drinking beer was making me fat, but I discovered that after a few beers I didn’t worry so much LOL).
What say you? Could you be tempted to take the TeloYear test? Or do you, like me, feel that some nuggets of knowledge are best left buried and unknown?
— Max Maxfield, Editor of All Things Fun & Interesting