DNA strands on the end of our chromosomes might tell us when we are going to die

Telomeres get shorter throughout our lifespan due to cell division, leading to the senescence (biological aging and deterioration) of cells, and a higher risk of disease

Jonathan Alder, a biologist at Brigham Young University in Utah, USA, has discovered a way to figure out when most of us are going to die.

Thanks to two studies on strands at the edges of our chromosomes called telomeres, Alder has discovered a way to predict life expectancy; the shorter your telomeres are, the shorter your lifespan will likely be. While they do not indicate the exact time or day you or I will die, they can provide a pretty good indication of when our time will be up.

Telomeres act like the plastic caps on the edge of a shoelace for our chromosomes. They are a protective tip that gets shorter every time a cell divides and replicates. As we age, cell division continuously occurs, and our telomeres keep getting shorter and shorter.

Once they disappear altogether the cell either dies or is rendered inactive, which can lead to disease.

The solution seems simple – figure out a way to lengthen our telomeres and we can live longer! Unfortunately, researchers have already tried this, and have found that overly lengthened telomeres can lead to complications such as cancer.

"This a definite goldilocks situation," Alder said. "Too little [telomeres], you age prematurely; too much, you could get more serious diseases. You need to be just right."

Alder’s research team also discovered that shorter telomeres prove to be an indication of an increased chance of lung disease and bone marrow failure, as well as liver and skin disease. "When we are born, our telomeres are longer. As you get older, they shorten," said Alder. "What we have found is that if you look at individuals with lung disease, they have shorter telomeres than the rest of us."

The findings of these studies might increase our ability to predict (and hopefully prevent) lung disease in higher-risk individuals, such as smokers. The results may also take us one step closer to finding out how to slow aging, or increase life expectancy.

The two studies were published in Chest, last December, and The Journal of Clinical Investigation earlier this month.

  1. http://journal.publications.chestnet.org/article.aspx?articleID=2087933
  2. http://www.jci.org/articles/view/78554
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