I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying.
— Woody Allen
Happy New Year! One of my resolutions is to jump back into blogging and/or podcasting, so here goes:
As of today, I launch a new health pursuit. Call it an n=1 experiment. I thought I’d tell you all about it, and let you know how it goes, as it goes.
No, I’m not leaving low carb. If anything, I am more committed than ever to this way of eating. I’m adding something new: Telomerase activators.
“Whuh?!,” I hear you cry. Telomerase activators. Let me explain.
You know, of course, that you have DNA in each of your cells. That DNA is the program or blueprint for your whole body. It’s shaped in a double helix — much like a twisted ladder. When a cell reproduces — when, say, my liver says, “Yeah, hey, thanks for the wine, but we need to do a little repair down here” — that ladder splits up the middle, and each side reproduces the whole thing. Voila! New cell.
At the very end of each of the long sides of that “ladder” is a little bit that does not encode any information. That bit is called a telomere. Just within the past couple of decades, scientists have figured out the function of telomeres: They’re like the aglet at the end of your shoelace. They keep the strands of DNA from “fraying” as they reproduce, thus protecting the precious information they encode.
However, every time a cell replicates a tiny bit of its telomere is lost, rendering your genetic information more vulnerable. This is why genetic health problems show up with age — why if you have a strong family tendency to heart disease, you don’t get a heart attack when you’re five, you get it when you’re fifty.
Eventually, your telomeres completely erode. As each cell loses its telomeres, it becomes unable to reproduce. One by one, your cells lose the ability to repair your body, a condition called senescence. This is why, if people don’t die of disease or trauma, they eventually die of old age — their cells can no longer replace themselves. It is the mechanism behind what is called the Hayflick Limit, the posited 120 year hard limit to human lifespan.
Depressing, no? And yet…
There is an enzyme called telomerase that causes telomeres to regrow. Some animals create a ton of telomerase in their bodies, and therefore do not die of old age. Take turtles — they make lots of telomerase. This is why they die of disease, predation, starvation, accident, but not of old age. (On my way to learning this, I also learned that there are “immortal jellyfish” — jellyfish that hatch and grow up to become adults, and spawn — and then shrink back down into eggs again, and repeat the whole thing. They do this indefinitely until some outside force kills them. This, my friends, is why I adore science: It’s just so freakin’ cool.)
Sadly, the only cells in the adult human body that secrete telomerase are cancer cells. This is why they can reproduce in an unlimited fashion. We will return to this point.
There is now exciting, ongoing research into substances that cause the human body to secrete telomerase. I have read several articles and two books by research scientists working in this field, and they are soberly predicting that the person who lives to somewhere between 200-300 years old is alive today.*
In particular, there has been clinical research done on a substance called TA-65, which I assume means “Telomerase Activator — the 65th one we tried.” It is a synthetic version of a naturally-occurring substance called cycloastragenol, from a Chinese herb called astragalus, an herb which, perhaps not just coincidentally, has a reputation for causing longevity. The company that created this synthetic cycloastragenol has clinical research showing re-lengthening of telomeres, and reversal of biological health markers of aging in lab animals. There is also a fair amount of anecdotal evidence from early adopters taking the stuff, and not only feeling better but having improvements in testable health markers.
It will surprise you not at all to know that the makers of TA-65 are charging very tall tickets** for their Fountain of Youth — about $1000/month. Hey, if you had a substance that literally reversed aging, what would you charge? I don’t know about you, but I don’t have $12,000 per year to spare. The cookbook biz isn’t that profitable.
But you will remember that TA-65 is the synthetic version of a naturally occurring molecule from a traditional Chinese herb. Naturally occurring substances cannot be patented. There is nothing to prevent companies from extracting cycloastragenol from astragalus, putting it in capsules, and marketing it. Which is exactly what they are doing. There are several brands of natural cycloastragenol capsules available for sale for prices within reach of the normally prosperous — where else? — on Amazon.com. 10 mg. capsules are running about $70 for a month’s supply — not cheap, but hardly $1000.
I have been blessed with a kind and generous father-in-law. Every year he sends That Nice Boy I Married and me each a hefty Amazon gift card for Christmas. This evening I spent a little upwards of $330 on six month’s worth of cycloastragenol.
But how will I know if it works?
There are now companies offering telomere testing to the general population. I sent for a telomere test kit today. It ran me $150, but since I’m writing about it for you nice people I can deduct it from my taxes, making it modestly less painful. I will take my cycloastragenol for six months, then take a second telomere test. That should tell me whether or not I want to spend more money this way.
Cycloastragenol aside, I will be interested to know how my telomere length compares to others in my age group. I have long suspected that a low carb diet has anti-aging effects — it certainly reduces glycation and wear and tear on the vascular and nervous systems. It will be interesting to know if it also has, to some degree, protected my telomeres. (It should be stated that I have been remarkably lucky — born to a well-to-do family, given regular medical care, spared many of the stresses of life that those born in less comfortable circumstances would bear. All of these should have protected my telomeres, as well. There are reasons the poor age and die faster than the rich.)
Too, after simply not getting around to it for a while, I have had a bunch of standard medical tests recently. Along with the telomere test, they should serve as a benchmark for my n=1 experiment.
But what about cancer? Remember, the only cells in the adult human body that secrete telomerase as a matter of course are cancer cells. Will taking telomerase activators cause cancer?
I have read varying opinions, and — while accepting that this is new science, and nobody knows for sure — I am sufficiently convinced that it will not. After all, turtles aren’t dropping dead of cancer left and right. More to the point, young bodies with long telomeres are far better at fighting off cancer than old bodies with short telomeres. And cancer cells are already producing all the telomerase they need. Telomerase activators are not likely to increase their supply, but rather that of the healthy cells needed to fight cancer off.
(This is no small matter to me. Three of my four grandparents and one of my parents died of cancer.)
So, as the old saying goes, we shall see what we shall see. When I get results from my telomere test I will let you know what they are. I will put off actually swallowing cycloastragenol capsules until I have sent the test kit in. When I swallow my last cycloastragenol capsule, I will do another test, and let you know again what the results are. And if, in the meanwhile, there are any notable developments, I will write about them, too.
While researchers are predicting 200-300 year lifespans, nobody knows for sure if longer telomeres and reversals in markers of age-related health problems translate into being able to blow through the Hayflick Limit. I’m hoping they do. But if I am hale and hearty, active and vital, up until my 120th birthday, then suddenly fall over dead, I will have won.
As for the expense, it seems that most people experimenting with telomerase activators are doing 6 months on, 6 months off. If the price remains in the $300-$400 range for a 6 month supply, well, all I can say is that it comes a lot cheaper than assisted living. And if science keeps coming up with discoveries like this, I will never get bored.
If I can make it to 300, well — I can’t tell you if it will be fun or not. I just want That Nice Boy I Married to come along for the ride.***
Sounds like a fun adventure, doesn’t it?
* Actually, there are stories of a Chinese herbalist named Li Qing Yuen, who reportedly lived to 256. There are photographs of him extant — he made it into the 20th century, having supposedly been born somewhere between 1677 and 1736. It seems to fit that a man versed in Chinese herbology achieved extraordinary longevity when it is a Chinese herb that has yielded the most important telomerase activator so far. I have been reading about Li, and will likely add some of his herbal regimen to my program, but not until I’ve spent 6 months on cycloastragenol.
** Credit where credit is due: I got the term “tall tickets” from Stephen King’s book Gerald’s Game. I adopted it instantly.
*** When I’m 258 and he’s 251, can I still call him “That Nice Boy I Married?”