Would you like to know how long you are potentially going to live? There is no easy answer to that, but scientists are now able to tell us just that: what is our potential life span. The secret of our lifespan lies in the length of telomeres, small bodies at the end of our chromosomes.
What are telomeres?
Telomeres are sections of specialized DNA at the ends of all chromosomes. A chromosome is a long molecule of DNA, a structure that stores our genetic information. We inherit the length of our telomeres from our parents. But, every time our cells divide, as they do throughout our lifetime, the length of telomeres gets slightly shaved off. Once our telomeres become too short, the cells stop dividing and die. It happens in cells of all our vital organs. As a consequence, they start failing as we get older and eventually die.
The study of telomeres is very lively and many scientists are trying to find out how can the length of our telomeres be extended so that our cells live longer. If they find the answer to that mystery, we could all live to be more than 100 years old. It is in fact the study of a group of centenarians that scientists followed up to find out that the length of telomeres is linked to their longevity and good health.
Can we do something about it?
The researchers discovered that people who have lived to a ripe old age had mutant genes they inherited from their parents, which boosts up their system for making telomerase super active. Telomerase is an enzyme which maintains telomere length. With very active telomerase, old people avoided diseases typical for old age which are most often the cause of their death, such as diabetes or cardiovascular illnesses.
The next step is to understand how it all works and which telomerase genetic variation is maintaining or extending the length of telomeres. This might lead them to the development of a drug similar to telomerase, which can affect the length of telomeres in other people who were not lucky to inherit the longevity genes.
In 2009 a group of scientists won the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for their study of the structure and role of telomeres.