A generation or two from now, people might look back on all those who died from old age the way we look at people in the middle ages who died from the common cold.
There’s a whole new thriving field of science devoted to solving the riddle of aging called biogerontology, which applies biological research to, well, aging. The idea is that getting older is something that happens inside of our bodies, and just like any other process inside our bodies there has to be some biological reason for it. Nothing in the human body happens without some kind of chemical or biological reason, and that includes aging.
Basically, aging is an illness, and scientists are trying to understand it well enough to come up with a cure. Eventually they just might figure it out, though I doubt we’ll wind up looking 25 forever and using our life force as a form of currency. In Time, anybody?
So what actually causes aging, biologically? Our bodies are made up of trillions of cells, and these cells themselves age and break down. As we age, our chromosomes, the capsules that contain our DNA strands, break down.
Those little white caps on the ends of the chromosomes are called telomeres, and they are the key to understanding aging. Some of you might have heard of them, but might now know how they work.
As we age, telomeres shorten, eventually getting so short that their chromosomes aren’t properly contained, and the capsule is ruined. The more ruined chromosomes there are, the more weak cells you have, and the more your organs start to malfunction.
There has been a surge in research recently into how to naturally keep your telomeres as lengthy as possible. *insert Viagra joke here* Studies have found that sitting too long can dramatically shorten your telomeres, causing you to age more rapidly. Another study found that eating excessive amounts of processed meat can result in prematurely shortened telomeres.
It turns out that there is a naturally occurring enzyme, known as telomerase, that elongates telomeres, resulting in healthier chromosomes. It’s like finding a way for the little plastic caps on the ends of your shoelaces to last longer, keeping your shoelaces from fraying and forcing you to buy new ones. Scientists have experimented with isolating telomerase into a gene and testing it on mice, and the results have been amazing–a 24% increase in longevity!
It’s still in the early stages, but it seems likely that telomerase is the path toward substantially longer lifespans for human beings. So start thinking of what you’d like to do with all that extra time. Would you want to live forever? Or at least for a lot longer? Tell us what you think!