"/> Want to Live Longer? Keep Your Chromosomes Long and Supple — The Airship
By Mina Le
"Aurora e Titone" by Francesco de Mura. Tithonus was a mythological prince whose lover, the goddess of dawn, rendered him immortal but forgot to ask for him not to age. Image from Wikipedia.

"Aurora e Titone" by Francesco de Mura. Tithonus was a mythological prince whose lover, the goddess of dawn, rendered him immortal but forgot to ask for him not to age. Image from Wikipedia.

Aubrey de Grey's Twitter bio minces no words in advertising his ambition: "I'm spearheading the global crusade to defeat aging." Modern society is famously fixated on prolonging youth, from the extension of adolescence into one's twenties to the mania for rejuvenative plastic surgery, but this British thinker proposes to fight aging at its molecular and cellular roots.

In his 2007 bestseller, Ending Aging, de Grey explains how aging results from genetic mutations, protein clumping, and inertia in cell growth, all of which he believes could be prevented or reversed. Not a bad starting point, although his science is widely considered fanciful, and I have to point out that his Ph.D. was awarded strictly on the basis of one of his books.

Other authors have chimed in: subsequent books against aging include 2010's The Immortality Edge: Realize the Secrets of Your Telomeres for a Longer, Healthier Life and 2011's The Immortality Pill Available Now: How Nobel Prize Winning Anti-Aging Science on Telomeres, Telomerase and TA-65 Can Help You Live Longer and Healthier, Fight Aging, and Stay Young (a title that displays an odd ambivalence toward the Oxford comma). Since the discovery of telomeres and telomerase did garner the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine, it's worth separating the science from the hype.

Here's what we do know: telomeres are the buffer zones at the ends of our chromosomes, which exist because the process of DNA replication would otherwise lead to the loss of a little genetic material every time a cell divides. Instead, with the onward march of time our telomeres shorten, and cells either stop growing or die when, like the sand in an hourglass, their telomeres run out.

In hopes of slowing that hourglass, anti-aging scientists have homed in on telomerase, the enzyme in stem cells that can replenish a shrinking telomere. By itself it’s no magic bullet, since telomerase is also a weapon employed by almost all cancer cells, and mice with more telomerase get more cancer. However, research out of Madrid last month suggests an intriguing new way to keep telomeres long. It was discovered that if you routinely feed a lab mouse 60% less food, not only will it lead a longer and healthier life, but its telomeres will be prevented from shrinking at the normal rate. The theory is that caloric restriction works by slowing metabolism and therefore reducing the oxidative stress that wears down telomeres.

Back to the book with the long title, the Spanish scientists behind the caloric-restriction study were the same ones who wrote in 2011 about the telomerase activator TA-65, purified from astragalus root and shown in mice to reduce age-associated disease such as glucose resistance and osteoporosis without increasing the rate of cancer. Considering that no other labs have published results on this drug, and that clinical trials in humans have not yet begun, I wouldn’t rush to call it “the immortality pill.” Telomeres are only one component in the complex biology of aging, and the fountain of youth will not come as easily to the likes of Aubrey de Grey as it did to Dorian Gray.

Anyway, if the recipe includes eating 60% fewer calories, I for one will opt for quality over quantity of my years.