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When 100 Becomes the New 60 (Update to Flourishing July issue)

| June 29, 2018
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“One of the most promising new fields of science and medicine is the area of cell therapies and their use in regenerative medicine. These new technologies, most of which are in early stages of development, hold significant promise for transformative and potentially curative treatments for some of humanity’s most troubling and intractable maladies.”

~US Food and Drug Administration, August 28, 2017

My semi-scientific understanding of aging is that human cells can replicate themselves 40-60 times (The Hayflick Limit) before they become senescent and die.  In this gradually degenerative process, the body becomes less able to defend against the diseases of old age.  That’s what happens to all of us naturally - unless something else, like Ebola or war– gets us first.

But now, the science of human aging is challenging the Hayflick Limit.  In 2009 Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider (researchers at UCSF), and Jack Szostak (Harvard) were awarded a Nobel Prize for their work (in the 1980’s) with telomeres.  Like most things scientific, the details of their discoveries are well above my pay grade, but I have read Dr. Blackburn’s book The Telomere Effect1.  In that book the authors describe telomeres as residing at the tip of each chromosome.  (A chromosome is a DNA molecule which contains the inherited genetic information that makes us what we are.)  They compare telomeres to the plastic tip on our shoelaces that keeps them from unraveling. 

With each cell replication, our telomeres grow shorter, causing each chromosome repeat to be less accurate than the one before.  Our skin begins to wrinkle, for example.  This is how the health and length of our telomeres helps to determine the length and quality of our lives.  (More or less.)

 The essence of the Blackburn, Greider, and Szostak discovery is that some cells (reproductive cells and most cancer cells) - which are not subject to The Hayflick Limit – are made that way by the presence of the enzyme telomerase.  Telomerase somehow prevents the shortening of telomeres, but it is not present in our normal somatic (body and brain) cells.  So, as our telomeres shorten, our cells age, and we age with them.

But, here is where I get really excited:  Michael Fossel earned both PhD and MD degrees from Stanford University, where he also taught neurobiology and research methods.  He is the author of the magisterial textbook Cells, Aging, and Human Disease, published by Oxford University Press in 2004.  The physicians among you can have at it if you like, but I know my limits. 

Thankfully, Dr. Fossel has also written The Telomerase Revolution2 for people like me - people with limited intelligence and extra-long to-do lists.  This book is only two hundred pages, and is the clearest writing on a difficult subject that you may ever find.  It begins by providing a history of the science of aging.  Then it describes the telomere theory of aging, integrating it with other theories or disproving them.  A good part of the book – and the most exciting aspect of it – discusses the potential for telomerase treatments (possibly cures) of spinal cord injuries, metastatic cancers, Parkinson’s disease, coronary artery disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and much more.  Indeed – as I learned in subsequent research – in ongoing clinical trials (not led by Dr. Fossel, but by a former colleague, Dr. Michael West) patients with spinal cord injuries are making remarkable and unprecedented progress toward recovery (throwing a baseball, lifting weights, etc.).

Dr. Fossel makes clear that we are still in the early stages of testing both the telomere theory and telomerase treatments.  But, he is also very sure of himself when he writes:

Within the next decade or two, the projected mean human life span may very well move into the range of several centuries, with far better control over diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s, and atherosclerosis.  We are about to change human medicine – as well as our lives and our society – forever.

Dr. Fossel isn’t selling vitamin supplements, though I’m not opposed to that.  Indeed, I’m a vitamin junkie.  Rather, Dr. Fossel is a former professor of Biology of Aging at Michigan State, and a compassionate clinical physician. Now, he’s working on a cellular intervention to cure Alzheimer’s disease.  And the good news is that he is not alone.  Telomerase therapies and other advances in biotechnology have expanded into clinical trials all across the country.  

I‘m not qualified to judge the science, but I have lived long enough to expect medical miracles.  Indeed, in many ways, I am one.  You may be, too.  One hundred years ago, most people died of infectious diseases; now, thanks to modern pharmacology, almost no one does.  In the year 1900, average life expectancy at birth was only forty-seven years.  So, I tell my grandchildren to take good care of their bodies, because they might have to live in them for a hundred years or more.  (Confession: I’d like to have that problem myself.)  A lot more – and I believe it.

More to the purpose of this essay, though, I’ve been thinking about the investment and financial implications of longer lifespans for many years.  So, I’ll have much more to say on that topic.  For today, though, let me just put a bug in your brain:  If 100 becomes the new 60 – and I believe it will – our plans and attitudes toward work, and retirement, and legacy will have to change.  (Keep in mind, I’m not talking about being older longer; I’m suggesting that people will be younger longer.)  Imagine the possibilities.  Until next week,

PATIENCE, DISCIPLINE, and CONFIDENCE in the FUTURE!  mh

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  • The Telomere Effect, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. Elissa Epel, Grand Central Publishing, 2017.
  • The Telomerase Revolution, Michael Fossel, MD, PhD., Ben Bella Books, 2015, 2017.

Content in this material is for general information only and not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for any individual.

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