Health Alert 32
Many argue that aging is a natural phenomenon that should be accepted as the natural order of things. Aging may be normal, but that doesn’t make it desirable.
In your first Health Alert in our series on anti-aging (Health Alert 30), I explained the important role of telomeres in aging. There can be no doubt that the aging process is the root of serious health problems. We die because we get sick. But we get sick because we get old.
New technology that can rebuild the telomere and reset the biological clock now appears tantalizingly close. It turns out that our bodies already hold the answer. We are all born with the capacity to make an enzyme called telomerase. It can rebuild the telomere at each cell division so that the new daughter cells will behave no older than the parent cell. We all have the gene for this enzyme but the gene is switched off. About a decade ago, a team of American scientists cloned the gene for human telomerase.
* Eternal Youth *
A biotechnology company called Geron Corporation owns the patent for telomerase. It is leading the research on the use of telomerase as an anti-aging therapy. (It is also researching the development of telomerase inhibitors as a cancer treatment. If a cancer cell could have its telomerase turned off, it would grow old and die like a normal cell.) So far, the results of research on telomerase as an anti-aging therapy are extremely encouraging.
By inserting a gene for telomerase into aging cells, it is possible to restore the shortened telomeres to lengths more typical of younger cells. Geron has taken cells from old mice and restored their telomeres to youthful lengths. These cells looked and acted in every way like young cells. And now last summer, they succeeded in changing a tissue culture of old human skin into youthful skin with telomerase.
Imagine if all the cells in your body functioned the way they did when you were thirty, you wouldn’t see the kind of degenerative conditions that are characteristic of aging. Your bones and joints would remain strong and your skin supple. Your immune function would remain vigilant and your heart vigorous.
Everything we currently associate with aging: heart disease, arthritis, hearing loss, failing eyesight, Alzheimer’s disease and osteoporosis could become as rare in 70-year-olds as they are in 30-year-olds. You simply will not age.
But before we can create eternally youthful bodies, we have to consider safety. One major concern is that the stimulation of telomerase could trigger or promote cancer. Abnormal presence of telomerase is seen in the development of cancer.
The University of Texas and Geron have both tested telomere-restored cells. Cells were monitored for cancer development. The immortalized cells were even exposed to cancer causing proteins to see if they could provoke cancerous behavior. All of the cells were found to be stable and cancer-free. 1
The research continues to look positive. It seems that anti-aging therapy via telomerase as an option for humans is drawing nearer. I would be surprised if we don’t see some human applications within 10 years.
* In The Meantime… *
But in the meantime, your cells are dividing, your telomeres are shortening and you are getting older.
Fortunately, there are strategies that you can put into play immediately that will help slow the shortening of your telomeres, thus slowing the aging process.
• Keep homocysteine in a healthy range
• Take Vitamin C
In Health Alert 23, I told you that homocysteine was a better predictor of cardiovascular events than cholesterol. And last Monday (Health Alert 30), I told you that toxic homocysteine actually speeds aging. Keeping your homocysteine levels low will help keep you young and free of heart disease.
The well-known scientist Linus Pauling was the first to claim that vitamin C could extend your life. Dr. Pauling took between 12,000 and 18,000 mg of vitamin C every day for years and lived to the ripe old age of 93.
Pauling’s theory was dismissed until the 1980’s when scientists discovered that antioxidants could protect cells from oxidative damage. The free radical theory of aging became popular. Vitamin C was found to be among the nutrients that protect cells from free radicals.
But oxidative damage to cells can be repaired. It is the oxidative damage to telomeres that is not repaired. This results in further shortening of telomeres. This very specific effect of free radical damage helps drive the aging process.
In 1998 a Japanese study tested vitamin C’s effect on telomeres. It was found that raising the level of vitamin C in the cells could slow down the loss of telomeres up to 62%. 2
The Recommended Daily Allowance of 60mg of Vitamin C per day is not enough to slow telomere loss. And Pauling’s mega-doses aren’t necessary. An effective dose of vitamin C for the purposes of preserving telomeric length is 500-1500mg, twice a day.
Al Sears, MD
1 Morales CP, et al. “Absence of cancer-associated changes in human fibroblasts immortalized with telomerase.” Nature Genetics 1999; vol. 21, pp. 111-118.
2 Furumoto K. et al. “Age-dependent telomere shortening is slowed down by enrichment of intracellular vitamin C via suppression of oxidative stress.” Life Science 1998, vol. 63, no. 11 pp. 935-48.