• Telomeres and the Fountain of Youth Hiding in Our Genes

    Telomeres and the Fountain of Youth Hiding in Our Genes

Since this first philosopher understood his own mortality, we have been striving to find the fountain of youth. Whether it’s with clever exercises or positive thinking, we are always looking for ways to extend our happy years. But in recent years, scientists are beginning to believe that the secret to aging is hidden in our DNA. Telomeres might be the secret to staying young, though we are just beginning to really understand how they work. 

What Are Telomeres?

As you likely know, our bodies are built with a combination of enzymes that make up the genetic code known as DNA. Each one of these strands holds information that makes up everything from our eye color to our suitability to genetic conditions. Each strand of DNA tells your body which cells to create and how many we need. To grow your hair or create blood cells is dependent on your DNA.

However, it also controls our cellular replication process — and each strand has a built-in “non-renewal” date genetically preprogrammed. Scientifically speaking, aging is the breakdown of this cellular replication cycle and our bodies stop making healthy cells.

This process is known as the telomere repeat sequence. Telomeres cap each sequence of DNA like a shoelace and protect our strand of DNA from unraveling. Telomerase, or the inability of our DNA enzymes to replicate healthy cells, begins when the telomeres at the ends of our DNA break down. 

Over time, they shrink and shorten and eventually run out. When that happens we experience the typical effects of aging. 

The Technical Stuff

Ok, so if our DNA are shoelaces and telomeres are the little caps on the ends, telomerase is the material that makes up the caps. This dictates the length of your DNA cap as well as how resilient it is. So, people who have their caps made up of thin tape will have their shoelaces start to fray sooner than someone who’s caps are made of metal. This is the key to when our DNA starts to break down and why it happens later for some people. Their shoelace caps are made of stronger or longer stuff. 

In fact, telomerase is so strong that it can regenerate. This happens because telomerase can replicate the shortening ends. However, this activity is limited and the telomerase enzyme cannot completely restore the loss of telomeric DNA repeats, meaning it cannot fully stop cellular aging, just slow it down. 

Why Does Learning About Telomeres Matter?

So far, none of this sounds too uplifting. Just that your genetically programmed aging process is unique to you. However, understanding the limitations of these enzymes is likely the key to figuring out how they work and how we can manipulate them to continue healthy replication in the future.

Understanding the nature of telomeres gives scientists an unexpected insight into a long battled foe; cancer. Cancer doesn’t exactly replicate on its own. What it does is high-jack our DNA and instead of having that cell create healthy tissues or blood, the cancer cell makes it create cancer. 

What Telomeres Are Doing for Cancer Research

Another interesting observation made by scientists is that cancer cells don’t experience any stop in telomere regeneration, meaning there is no built-in “non-renewal” on its replication. They do not undergo programmed cell breakdown likes ours do. This is the reason cancer is so dangerous to us.  Once a cell is taken over, cancer can increase your production of telomerase, which causes the cancer cell to reproduce. At its most basic, cancer uses our natural biological functions against us. 

But this discovery is also the cause of a lot of excitement in the cancer research field. Understanding this relationship might be the key to curing cancer. To understand the academic theory, check out this article. But we will try to break it down as best we can here.

As we discussed earlier, our telomeres are made up of stronger stuff sometimes. This stuff is a collection of certain enzymes. In recent studies, scientists have discovered that two particular enzymes make up the telomeres in cancer cells. When scientists focused on disrupting the enzymes that make up a cancer cell’s telomeres, the cancer cells shrunk and — in some cases — disappeared entirely.

What This Means for the Future

Though this new information is extremely exciting to the fight against cancer, it is nowhere near a cure as of now. However, it is generating a lot of hope for the future and sorting out the science behind aging well. If we can break the code, we might discover the fountain of youth in our DNA is a matter of genetic testing and research.

Until then, we may have to stick to the tried and true methods of exercise and diet, though there are exciting things on the horizon. For now, studies still suggest that staying active is the best way to keep your body healthy. In fact, the more active you are, the fewer long-term health problems you will have regardless of your genetics. 

Every day, the scientific community is working to reinvent the way people think about aging. And the more we learn, the brighter the future appears.

Get the power to build the life you want with our free A to Z Guide on aging well.

Twin Lakes is a continuing care retirement community in Cincinnati, Ohio, offering villa homes, apartments, rehab services and more. We’re focused on supporting the vibrant and active lifestyles of our residents so they can age well. For more information, contact Twin Lakes online or at 513-247-1300.