A few months ago my friend Steve announced his plan to live to 150.
Steve is no gerontologist – he sells data management software to corporate clients – but in his spare time he’s been reading up on longevity and blogging about what he’s learned. His goal is to make the most of what science has to offer to reach a record-breaking lifespan.
It’s ambitious, but not that far-fetched, he says. Just last week the oldest man ever, Jiroemon Kimura, died at 116. Given the pace of medical discovery maybe someone will get to 150 some day. Why not Steve?
It’s certainly easy to understand his motivation. Like me, Steve was born at the tail end of the baby boom. In a little more than 18 months, every last straggling member of that historic cohort will finally hit age 50. For our demographic, longevity is no longer an abstract concept. And just in case we’re not thinking about it enough, there’s an anti-aging industry doing all it can to cash in on our anxieties.
Into this carnival of hormone therapies and supplements comes an increasingly accessible test that promises to show just how well (or poorly) we’re holding up against the ravages of time.
It involves telomeres – which, if you haven’t had to think about this yet, are tiny structures at the ends of your chromosomes that keep them from fraying and losing crucial bits of genetic information. What interests researchers who study aging is that when cells divide, their telomeres get shorter. Once they get too short, cells stops dividing and may die. Played out across the whole body, there’s mounting evidence that shorter telomeres translate into increased susceptibility to diseases and the gradual wearing out of tissues that is the hallmark of old age.
It’s tempting to think of our telomeres as the cellular equivalents of the grim reaper’s hourglass, counting out our predetermined life spans. But the hourglass can get periodic refills – thanks to an enzyme called telomerase, which acts to build telomeres back up. And the rise of telomere testing for consumers is also pegged to evidence that telomere length is not just an inherited inevitability but may be influenced by factors such as stress, exercise and nutrition. The thinking is, if you can regularly monitor your telomere length, you’ll be more apt to do the right things to slow the rate at which they’re burning away.
“We all want to live healthier, longer,” says Calvin Harley, a telomere researcher and CEO of Telome Health, a company based in Menlo Park, Calif., that offers telomere testing to consumers. “Measuring telomere length and allowing individuals to see if their cellular age is more advanced than their chronological age may be a motivation to improve lifestyle.”
I can only hope.
As a working journalist in my late 40s I’ve hardly lived a life of serenity. Years of deadline pressures and lost sleep have surely taken their toll, along with with a general lack of exercise and too many late- night refrigerator raids. Now with three young children at home and all the usual pressures of midlife, I can easily imagine my telomeres burning up like so many sparklers.
Yet I’m also fascinated by the possibility that aging is more than just a collection of symptoms such as aching joints and greying hair. The idea that there is a mechanism that accounts for why our bodies run down is compelling. The idea that we can do something about it is hard to resist.
While I’m not pursuing longevity as doggedly as my friend Steve, I am certainly interested enough to get my telomeres measured.
The detailed workings of telomeres first came to light in the 1980s through the work of Elizabeth Blackburn, who won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2009 together with Carol Greider and Jack Szostak. Dr. Blackburn is also a co-founder of Telome Health, which employs a method called QPCR to measure telomere length – a test which retails for about $400 a pop.
There are other testing methods, with a range of accuracy and costs, but they all work by zeroing in on the repeating sequence of nonsense DNA that can be found at the tips of every chromosome. The sequence serves the same purpose as a film leader. As cells divide, chromosomes naturally get shorter over time – telomeres offer protective buffering, so that in this process important information isn’t sacrificed.
In time, advocates of testing say, telomeres will become a routine health diagnostic like cholesterol. For now, though, the easiest way to get your telomeres tested in Canada – outside of clinical research – is through a place like the Executive Health Centre, a Toronto clinic that offers preventive health care for its high-performing clients (and which offered me a free telomere test for the purpose of this story).