A new test has been described as a predictor of how long a person will live, a waste of time or a handy indicator of how well (or badly) the body is ageing.
The test — which measures the telomeres (the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes) — is based on the idea that biological ageing grinds at your telomeres. And, although time ticks by uniformly, our bodies age at different rates.
Genes, environment and one’s own personal habits all play a part in that process. A peek at one’s telomeres is an indicator of how you somebody doing. Essentially, they tell whether one has become biologically younger or older than other s born at around the same time.
The key measure, explains María Blasco, a 45-year-old molecular biologist, head of Spain’s cancer research centre and one of the world’s leading telomere researchers, is the number of short telomeres.
Blasco says that short telomeres do not just provide evidence of ageing. They also cause it. Often compared to the plastic caps on a shoelace, there is a critical level at which the fraying becomes irreversible and triggers cell death. “Short telomeres are causal of disease because when they are below a (certain) length they are damaging for the cells. The stem cells of our tissues do not regenerate and then we have ageing of the tissues,” she explains.
That, in a cellular nutshell, is how ageing works. Eventually, so many of our telomeres are short that some key part of our body may stop working.
The research is still in its early days but extreme stress, for example, has been linked to telomere shortening.
However, according to a New York Times interview with 2009 Nobel prize-winner Carol Greider — whom Blasco trained under — individual telomere tests are not much use. Blasco, obviously, disagrees.
She compares the current state of telomere testing to the early days of cholesterol tests — and believes it should become common once the price drops and research is done to beef up databases and create telomere-restoring treatments.