For at least two decades we’ve been living with a drastic revision of growing old. What is now dubbed the “old old age” prevailed for centuries; it was a set of beliefs that turned the aging process into inevitable decline physically and mentally. After a lifetime of work, people found themselves set aside, no longer productive or active members of society. Generation after generation these expectations came true. But everyone trapped in the old old age was mistaken to think such expectations were inevitable. Hidden factors were causing beliefs to turn into reality.
The “new old age,” created by the baby boomer generation, threw out the previous beliefs, exchanging them for more optimistic ones, and by now we’ve grown used to a set of readjusted expectations. Millions of people over 65 haven’t retired, and few have taken to the rocking chair. To be healthy and active one’s whole life seems possible. But as much good as the new old age has done, it faced two major obstacles. The first was that aging itself has long been a mystery, not explained by medical science because too many changes occur over a lifetime, and these changes vary from person to person. The second obstacle, assuming that aging could be defined, was how to reverse it.
An enormous leap forward in overcoming both obstacles was made by Elizabeth Blackburn, the molecular biologist who shared the 2008 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine with Carol Greider and Jack Szostak for their discovery of telomerase, the enzyme that replenishes a section of DNA known as telomeres, which cap the end of each chromosome like a period ending a sentence. Telomeres are “noncoding” DNA, meaning that they have no specified function in building cells, but they are far from passive. Their function seems to be to preserve cells. Every time a cell divides, which happens constantly somewhere in the body, its telomeres are shortened. Longer telomeres are typical of young cells in the stage of luxuriant growth; shortened or frayed telomeres are typical of weary senescent cells.
Now the head of the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, Blackburn covers every aspect of cell aging and renewal in her 2017 book, The Telomere Effect, co-authored with her close colleague, UCSF Professor and health psychologist Elissa Epel. They convincingly describe telomeres and levels of telomerase in the cell as our best marker yet for the multifold process of aging. This also implies that by increasing one’s telomerase levels and thereby causing telomeres to grow longer, a healthy lifespan can be founded on cells that keep renewing themselves for decades.
In their book Blackburn and Epel cite a startling actuarial prediction. There are currently around 300,000 centenarians existing around the world, a number that is rapidly increasing. According to one estimate, reaching one hundred is about to become so commonplace that one-third of children born in the UK will live to be centenarians—the issue of protecting your cells is suddenly more urgent than ever. We highly recommend reading Blackburn and Epel’s book–its wealth of information needs to be absorbed in detail. But the bottom line is to understand what puts your telomeres at high risk and low risk. Continue reading