The study at hand has been featured in the Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention Journal, and was recently presented to a group of doctors and scientists at the UK's Royal Society of Medicine Conference.
But before you can understand the study's findings, you'll need a quick science lesson.
The study focuses on telomeres, the region of DNA that is found at the end of every chromosome in our bodies, similar to the the small plastic cap at the end of a shoelace that keeps it from unraveling. In much the same way, our chromosomes would mutate and rearrange without the capped protection of telomeres.
Yet, as we age and our cells divide, some of that tip is lost because human cells lack the ability to replicate the very tip of the chromosome during cell division. So as the years go by, our telomeres become smaller.
"Telomere shortening can cause nearly all conditions associated with aging. That includes wrinkles, hair thinning, arthritis, weight gain and loss, high blood pressure, diabetes, vision and hearing loss, Alzheimer's, and all the cancers," says Dr. Edward Park, an anti-aging specialist at Santa Ana, California's Recharge Biomedical Clinic.
"In car terms, it would be like saying that the more miles you have on old car's odometer, the more the paint will be cracking," adds Dr. Park.
Our bodies do have the potential to produce an enzyme called telomerase that adds DNA sequences back to the ends of chromosomes -- though it's usually not active in most of our cells, says Dr. William Andrews, President and CEO of Sierra Sciences, LLC, a company that is searching for technologies that activate the telomerase gene.
Now, back to the study.
While looking at sequences, researchers from London's Kings College found that people with a large amount of moles have a particular kind of DNA strand that has naturally longer telomeres. As a result, their cell division rates lasted up to seven years longer than people without moles.
"To produce a visible mole from a signal cell requires about 30 cell doublings," explains Dr. Andrews. People with shorter telomeres wouldn't be able to produce visible moles, while those with longer telomeres often have many moles.
"I would go further than saying that those people with longer telomeres 'looked' up to seven years younger; I'd say that, biologically, they were up to seven years younger," adds Dr. Andrews. "Because they have longer telomeres than average people, their 'clock of aging' runs a little longer than the average."
But if mother nature has left you mole-less, you don't need to necessarily start saving up for the Botox now. Experts say that a variety of lifestyle factors can either preserve or shorten your telomere length.
"Environmental factors such as UV radiation, poor diet, poor exercise habits, psychological stress, smoking and obesity can cause telomeres to shorten faster than as a result of natural cell division alone," says Dr. Andrews.
And on the upside, practices like wearing sunscreen, eating healthy foods filled with antioxidants, exercise, meditation, sleep, and avoiding smoking can help stop accelerated telomere shortening. However, no actions can lengthen telomeres -- only telomerase can do that, adds Dr. Andrews.
Experts agree that the emerging field of genetic medicine could one day lead to the lessening, reversal and possibly even "cure" to aging.
Dr. Andrews points to a study conducted back in 2000 by the Geron Corporation that added the telomerase gene to very old skin cells -- which then replicated to grow into youthful, healthy skin. DNA analysis was then performed, and it was found that longer telomeres had actually made the cells younger.
Now companies like the one Dr. Andrews heads are racing to find the technology that may one day enable you to turn back the hands of time -- and wrinkles -- on your skin.
"We've already discovered 38 families of chemicals that turn on telomerase, and we hope to have a nutraceutical on the market next year. We believe that science is right on the cusp of learning how to reverse aging in humans," says Dr. Andrews.
Meanwhile, Dr. Parker says he has seen results with a supplement by TA Sciences called TA-65 that is derived from the traditional Chinese herb Astragalus, and which the company claims can turn on telomerase.
While Astralagus can often be found in any health store that carries Chinese herbs, critics say that it takes a tremendous amount of leaves and a highly specialized process to extract the TA-65 molecule from the plant, and that the herbal supplements on the market don't contain the prized molecule.
The plant has been used for over 1,000 years beginning with the ancient Chinese, primarily as an antioxidant-rich immune-boosting supplement that was believed to prevent such aging maladies as heart disease and cancer.
The ancient Chinese may have been on to something -- but it could be the modern high-tech era that finally unlocks that last piece of the puzzle.
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