Opinion

Latimer: Telomere test offers genetic code insights

Do you know whether or not you have short telomeres?

Strange question, but knowing the answer may provide some insight into the state of your health or your risk of developing certain health problems in the future.

Telomeres are part of our genetic code—often likened to the plastic tips on the ends of shoelaces.

They seem to protect the ends of chromosomes and keep cells from aging too quickly.

Each time a cell divides, the telomeres get shorter and once they are too short, the cell can no longer divide.

In healthy cells, telomeres also rebuild.

Many studies have linked unusually short telomeres to health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, cancer and chronic stress.

Now, one of the world’s foremost experts in the field has created a test to measure people’s telomeres—and it will likely be available to the public sometime this year.

Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn is a researcher at the University of California in San Francisco. She won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 2009 for her work on telomeres.

As scientific understanding around telomeres and their links to health issues has increased, there has been some demand for a test to measure them.

Dr. Blackburn has developed such a test and also founded a company to market it.

Some in the research community doubt the usefulness of measuring telomeres because it is not a test for a specific health issue or disease.

In spite of these critiques, Dr. Blackburn believes the test could be a useful tool for patients and doctors alike—comparing it to a check engine light in a vehicle.

If your test showed you had shorter than normal telomeres, it may warrant doing some other medical investigating and could be an indicator that some preventive measures are needed.

Healthy cells restore their own telomeres with the enzyme telomerase and there may be ways to increase its action in the cell.

Some preventive measures such as exercise, healthy food choices, losing excess weight and reducing stress could help to prevent telomeres from getting shorter or even restore those that have already declined.

More studies continue into the connections between telomeres and mental and physical health and may prove more concrete cause and effect relationships.

Meantime, there will be a test on the market soon. For a few hundred dollars, interested people could learn the answer to the strange question of whether they have short or long telomeres.

Maybe this will not be a specific predictor of disease or length of life, but a telomere test could be part of a larger health picture and may move us further along the way to preventive health care rather than simply interventional health care.

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