BBC claims that “Health Kick ‘reverses cell ageing'”
The BBC online published an article today with a very bold headline, which claimed that ‘Health Kick reverses cell ageing’. The article discussed a study that saw a significant increase in the length of telomeres in the participants who made comprehensive lifestyle changes.
At a glance, this seems great. Simply find a way to lengthen the telomeres, and you’ll be able to ‘reverse cell ageing’ and ultimately conquer death. An enzyme that does exactly that, and rebuilds the ends of telomeres, already exists and is called telomerase. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite work like that.
Telomeres protect the ends of DNA, and each is formed from an identical DNA sequence. Younger cells have longer telomeres, and after each cell division these get shorter until the cell shuts down. As they are identical, and identical sequences bind to one another, there is a big risk that the chromosomes will link up in the nucleus. This is overcome by the ends of the chromosomes being densely packed with repressive modifications at the end. This creates a very careful balance, as if the telomeres are too long they will link up which greatly increases the risk of cancer, yet if they are too short the cell will shut down.
If you were to try and use telomerase to reverse or slow human aging, yes your cells might have a longer life expectancy, however the risk of cancer would be so greatly increased that you’d be unlikely to live long enough to benefit from this.
The article then goes on to say that ‘the significance of the effect of these lifestyle changes on telomere length is actually quite borderline, with only two or three men showing any improvement’, and points out that although we live far longer than primates we in fact have shorter telomeres, suggesting that the secret to reversing ageing is unlikely to relate to telomere length after all.
It is already widely accepted that a healthy lifestyle increases your life expectancy, and if this is done in part by slowing down the deterioration of telomeres then that’s still a very positive outcome, however I feel that we are a long way away from combating aging by directly targeting telomeres and that there is a good chance that the risks will always outweigh the possible benefits.