Every year the beauty industry rakes in trillions of dollars selling lotions, serums, and magic potions to prevent aging to an ironically ever-younger population. It’s the perfect business; there will always be people who are scared of the aging process, and there will always be the inevitable progression of time slowly degrading their bodies. To some extent, our society will always favor the young and beautiful, creating excellent motivation to spend money on beauty solutions. However, all of these "clinically-proven" remedies ultimately do nothing to combat aging. Sure, these products fill in wrinkles and improve appearances (I can hear the commercials now – "Tighter! Firmer! YOUNGER!”). But the body continues to age nonetheless. Perhaps science has beaten the beauty industry to the punch on this money-making issue by uncovering the true method to halt aging.
Why we age
Recently, the National Institute of Health (NIH) in collaboration with Rodrigo Calado, a professor at the University of Sao Paulo Ribeirao Preto Medical School, completed a clinical trial with a drug treatment called Danazol. Danazol combats the underlying biological cause of aging: telomere degradation. While this treatment was developed for people suffering from premature aging and debilitating disease caused by telomerase deficiency, Danazol can be adapted as an anti-aging treatment.
Telomeres, a DNA-protein structure, are regarded as the key to aging due to their relationship with chromosomes. Every single bodily function and process is encoded in chromosomal blueprints. The chromosomes of each cell in the body are vital to that cell’s function. Yet, these chromosomes are constantly manipulated because mistakes are made during the DNA replication process and because it is common for nucleotides to degrade over time. To protect the genetic information of the chromosome, a telomere is found on each end of the chromosome. The telomere gets damaged and degrades instead of the genetic material the cell so desperately needs. These telomeres help preserve the function of the cell.
Preserving our Youth
Telomeres in healthy adults are 7000-9000 base pairs long, creating a robust barrier against DNA damage. The longer the telomeres are, the more resolutely the chromosome can resist that damage. The length of someone's telomeres are affected by a smattering of different factors including body weight, environment, and economic status. A healthy diet, regular exercise, and average stress levels reduce telomere shortening significantly. On the other hand, obesity, an unhealthy or irregular diet, high stress levels and habits such as smoking have an intensely detrimental effect on the body's telomeres. As the telomeres degrade, the chromosomes are more at risk. Consequently, as the telomeres shorten, the risk of coronary heart disease, heart failure, diabetes, cancer and osteoporosis increase, all of which are common in old age.
The enzyme telomerase can increase the length of the body's telomeres. This enzyme is much more prevalent in cells during early development and only found in low levels in adult cells in the body. However, during their study the NIH and Calado discovered that androgens, a steroid precursor to human hormones, in non-human model systems increased telomerase function. The clinical trial was conducted to see if the same effect would occur in humans. The results demonstrated that, because androgens quickly convert into estrogens in the human body, it is more effective to use the synthetic male hormone Danazol instead.
In healthy adults, telomeres shorten by 25-28 base pairs a year; a small, even negligible change that allows for a long life. The 27 patients in the clinical trial had telomerase gene mutations and, as a result, were losing from 100 to 300 base pairs a year on each telomere. The study, conducted over two years of treatment, showed that the patients’ telomere length increased by 386 base pairs a year on average.
The results are promising for those with telomerase deficiencies. It is not clear what effect such a treatment could have on healthy individuals; the fact that Danazol is a male hormone could have an adverse effect on the body. However, the treatment is not only applicable to individuals with telomerase deficiencies, or who suffer through chemotherapy, or have damaged healthy cells. If telomeres can be supplemented in healthy individuals, it is possible to extend the range of life; bodies will be physically stronger and healthier for many more years than is possible today. In the meantime, a healthy diet, exercise, and relaxation are your best tools.