To better understand this connection, I spoke to Dr. Preston Estep, the Chief Scientific Officer of TeloMe, Inc., and an expert on genetics and human aging.
Specifically, I asked him what biological mechanism could account for the shortening of the telomeres.
"Cell replication shortens telomeres, and telomerase, an enzyme encoded in our genes, makes telomeres longer," he
"The overall balance of these two determines length, and typically telomerase levels are low enough to allow gradual shortening with time."
says that people vary a lot in both starting telomere length and rate of shortening.
"One very important discovery made by the ENGAGE consortium
is that genetic variants that predispose to shorter telomeres and higher disease risk are extremely common," he
"I'm sure many people are surprised that common and even predominant genetic variants predispose to higher risk of disease and mortality, but we are finding this more often as more high-quality and large-scale studies like the ENGAGE
study are published.
However, from an evolutionary perspective this is to be expected, since the negative effects of these variants don't occur until later in the post-reproductive phase of life."
noted, the telomerase enzyme makes our telomeres longer.
This insight, along with the genetic findings of ENGAGE
, could mean that rejuvenation therapies might soon be possible.
I asked Estep
how difficult it is to measure someone's telomere length and whether or not a clinical application awaits us in the future.
"From our perspective, it is technically easy to measure average telomere length, and more difficult to do a detailed analysis that provides a detailed look at the distribution of telomere lengths from shortest to longest," he
But eventually, says Estep
, the testing of telomeres will be very similar to routine cholesterol or blood pressure testing in a number of important ways:
Dynamic: Telomere lengths change over time and are influenced by both genetics and many lifestyle factors
Meaningful: Very short or very long telomeres not only are associated with higher risk for disease and mortality, they are a cause
Treatable: Telomere length can be controlled not only through lifestyle factors, but also through therapeutic means
And in fact, Estep
is so serious about this that his
company has set up an Indiegogo campaign for introducing people to telomere testing.
In terms of actual approaches, he
has some ideas.
"Some weak ones that are already in use are vigorous exercise, stress reduction, good diet - the standard list of positive lifestyle factors," he
"However, people don't respond equally, and those who have very short telomeres might consider more potent means."
says that telomerase activator supplements are already being sold, but that people should approach this whole area with great caution.
"I also think that more studies are needed to better understand the benefits and risks," he
"Nevertheless, people with very short telomeres are living with higher risk for many serious health issues, and their best hope for reducing the risk is to fix the problem," he