THE BLOG
07/25/2013 05:39 pm ET Updated Sep 24, 2013

How and Why We Age: The Power of Telomeres and Telomerase

Twenty years ago little was known about the aging process. Many ideas existed but nothing was certain. Today we know how and why we age. We cannot control it just yet, but even that may change in the near future.

The human body has 100 trillion highly-specialized cells. Each of these cells has sets of chromosomes that contain your DNA and RNA, the latter being a compound that tells each cell what its job is. At the ends of each chromosome are cap pieces called telomeres. These telomeres keep the DNA and RNA from getting damaged by all of the activity that goes on in a cell.

Research demonstrated that the vast majority of cells in our bodies are mortal and have a fixed lifespan. On average, they can divide only 52 times and no more. When the cell cannot divide anymore, it is said to be senescent and susceptible to disease, infection, malfunctioning, and death. The reason cells cannot divide more than 52 times is that half of the telomere goes with the newly-cloned cell and half stays with the parent. Eventually the telomere is so short it cannot divide into two.

A tiny percentage of the cells in your body are immortal and can divide again and again with no limit. These immortal cells are largely a part of your immune system and fight off diseases and infections as well as repair injuries. Immortal cells also have telomeres that split into two, but an enzyme called telomerase restores the telomeres to their full size after cell division. For some reason the mortal cells in our bodies do not allow telomerase inside. Only the immortal cells do so.

While immune cells are essential for our survival, another category of immortal cells are very deadly, and these are cancer cells. When cancer starts to grow in a person's body, the immune cells are dispatched to the area, recognize cancer as not belonging there, and try to do away with it. The immune cells bring telomerase to the location where the cancer is growing to clone themselves onsite. However telomerase also fuels the growth of the cancer. Cancer cells need telomerase to clone themselves and cannot do so without it.

Possible Cure for Cancer?

One really intriguing possibility presents itself: Can we cure cancer by denying telomerase to the portion of the body where the cancer is growing? Well, such a medicine has been developed, and right now there are four clinical trials taking place with human cancer patients to test its effectiveness. To be deemed a success, the medicine must: (1) kill all cancer cells, not just some of them; (2) not spread to other parts of the body and take out telomerase where it is assisting immune cells; and (3) not cause serious side effects like heart attack or stroke.

If successful, the cancer cells would not be able to clone themselves and multiply. The existing cancer cells would become senescent and die. Since 90 percent of all cancer cells are rapidly growing and need telomerase, the medicine has potential to take out all of these cancers at once. Time will tell if these studies are successful.

Fountain of Youth

Another intriguing possibility also exists: Can we get the mortal cells in our bodies to welcome telomerase inside, turning these mortal cells into immortal ones? If done to all of our mortal cells, we would then become immortal. Believe it or not, this has already been done, albeit on a small scale.

Researchers collected human senescent cells that are incapable of dividing. Telomerase was force-fed to the cells in a test-tube study. What happened? The senescent cells had their biological clocks reset to zero and started dividing again, just like baby cells. In one case they divided 26 times before the experiment came to an end. Importantly, none of the cells in the experiment showed any cancer or tumor growth. This is great news, as scientists had previously speculated that the reason the body does not allow telomerase inside 99 percent of its cells -- with the exception of immune cells and some cells that develop during pregnancy -- is to prevent healthy cells from becoming cancerous.

Researchers are working on methods to introduce telomerase into mortal cells. It is one thing to do research with just 100 cells in a test tube and another to do it with 100 trillion cells in the entire human body. However, we know exactly what needs to be done to make the Fountain of Youth a reality.

Next Steps

Should we all just sit around and wait for these discoveries to happen? That would be a great mistake. For we have discovered four sets of factors that each correlate with longevity, reducing the risk of (1) cardiovascular disease; (2) cancer; (3) diabetes; (4) cognitive decline (dementia and Alzheimer's disease); and many other deadly conditions. These four factors are: aerobic exercise, cognitive enrichment, psychological states of mind, and nutrition. Doing the right things with these four factors will not make you immortal, but it may be the difference between dying in your 90s and dying in your 60s.

Yes, there is a a correlation between telomere length and these four factors. For example, one study found that runners have been found to have longer telomeres than sedentary people. Take great care of your body and cell division is postponed. But research also shows that if you take lousy care of your body and the cells are under stress, they will divide more quickly, shortening your telomeres. My book A Sound Mind in a Sound Body tells you what to do in each of the four key areas.

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