Aging is not really an illness, though it can feel that way if it ups your risk for getting all sorts of other diseases. What causes aging? There are a lot of different theories in the medical community about why the body begins to “grow old.” Eyesight dims, hearing is lost, muscles lose their strength and elasticity, and bones can lose mass. And perhaps, most importantly, the immune system can stop functioning properly.
Perhaps you have asked yourself this question: “Is there a way to stop the process of aging, or at least slow it down?” The answer, according to researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, is a resounding “Yes!” Although it is probably true that there is, as yet, no magic pill that can take you back in time and make you feel like a 20-year-old when you are 62, the researchers say their recent discovery is the next best thing.
It all has to do with a theory of aging called the “telomere theory.” Telomere theory delves into the world of cell division. Cell division is a very important process in your body. It is the only way that you can replace dead or dying cells. Unfortunately, there is a limit to how many times a cell can divide successfully. On average, your cells will divide about 50 times before they stop dividing and die.
Some medical researchers believe that the mechanism that controls cell division lies with something called the “telomere.” The telomere is a structure found on the ends of each of your 23 pairs of chromosomes. Chromosomes are needed to help carry out your genetic code. Now — here’s the interesting part — every time a cell divides, the telomere shortens. And after a certain amount of divisions, the telomere disappears altogether and chromosomes stop dividing. Over time, this accumulated cell death leads to aging.
Now, the U.S. scientists took this theory of aging and decided to see what would happen if they developed mice with a controllable “telomerase” gene. Telomerase is an enzyme that helps maintain telomeres. The newly installed telomerase gene was able to act like a switch. The research team simply flicked this switch and reactivated telomerase in the mice to reduce the signs and symptoms of aging.
In addition, the mice seemed to be protected from cancer — they didn’t show any signs of the disease. The link between cancer and telomerase was a key concern for the researchers, as cancer cells can use telomerase to make themselves virtually indestructible.
The research team hopes the study will lead to new directions for regenerative medicine. They say the study findings show that dormant adult stem cells in aged tissues actually remain useful. They can be reactivated to repair tissue damage.
The research team feels that it is now possible to remove the underlying damage that causes the aging process. By getting stem cells to regenerate and multiply, instead of stopping their growth, it should be possible to rejuvenate tissues and maintain health during old age.