Weird Science: How to Predict Your Death

Gattaca is coming true. Remember Gattaca? Guy can’t get a job because some personal genetic failure has him dying in his 30s. Okay, he can get a job, but not THE job, the job of astronaut. He won’t take no for an answer so he borrows some DNA from his roommate, Mr. Perfect Genetic Profile. Ends up making it to the stars. Remember that? It’s one of the better science fiction movies because not only does it make you think, but Jude Law is in it.

Maybe the storyline’s a little far-fetched (they find a single hair and it just happens to be our hero’s? C’mon what are the odds?) but apparently our genes do hold the secret of how long we will live. And we have ways of making them talk. The secret’s in the telomeres, the bits at the far ends of the chromosomes. Each strand of DNA in a cell is given just so much telomere length. Each time the cell divides, the telomere doesn’t replicate and so is shortened. Once the length is too short, you die. Well, I suppose it’s the cell that no longer replicates. Given enough senescent cells, you die. Or something.

Most importantly for the purposes of this blog post, telomeres.net says this: “Research has shown that people over 60 that have long telomeres experience greater heart and immune system health than 60 year olds with shorter telomeres. This shows that long telomeres support health.”

So: long telomeres good, short telomeres baaaad juju.

Now that home genetics test kits are available and you can get your genome sequenced for a buck-three-eighty, companies are popping up to tell you your future by looking at your genes. Some of them will even tell you when you’re going to die.

Life Length is just such a company. They measure your telomeres and give you a best guess on longevity. They suggest you get your telomeres measured annually because their best guess can change depending on what all you’re into.

Apparently short telomeres are not necessarily unfixable. They can be extended via an enzyme called “telomerase,” which works to re-elongate telomeres and give an aging cell a new lease on life. Normal cells do not produce telomerase because the enzyme also promotes wild cancerous growth. You really don’t want a lot of it hanging about. However, in cells that have been subjected to the effects of trauma, cigarette smoke, or other agents of change in a negative direction, a little telomerase can go a long way.

The point is, measuring your telomeres at a single point in time is not going to give you a full picture. When you’re young and burning the candle at both ends, your telomeres are relatively long, but a wild life style: booze, women, no sleep, can somehow shorten them. But if you change your evil ways, you might be all right. Your telomeres may stay healthy or perhaps elongate back to where they’re supposed to be.

When you’re older and already starting to feel the effects of your misspent youth, you might start a rigorous health program complete with tasteless vegetarian food, low-impact aerobics, and trips to the mountain to clear your head. Although your telomeres by now are, no doubt, in a sad state, you might just get a little telomerase action and things will look up.

So one test of telomerase length (at reportedly 500 euros a pop) is not enough. Got to do it annually or more often if you’re experimenting with your lifestyle again (Twizzlers for dinner, anyone?)

Why on earth would anyone want this information you ask? Oh, you cynic. Always the bubble burster. Life Length has an answer for you.

“First, it is an excellent indicator of overall general health. Second, by knowing our biological age, it permits us to obtain a better understanding of the life-style habits that impact aging and affords us the opportunity to make appropriate changes. Third, as physicians and the medical community become more comfortable with Life Length’s telomere measuring, it will allow for more personalized medicine as doctors treat patients increasingly taking into consideration their biological age.”

So there you have it, predicting your death. Do you want to know, or do you prefer death to come to you like a thief in the night? I’m not fond of thieves in the night, unless they’ve got a pack of Twizzlers to share, of course, but I think I might prefer a surprise on this one.

Thanks for reading.

Sue Lange

Sue Lange’s latest ebook, Tritcheon Hash, is full of lapses of logic and weird science. “It’s a wild, good read.” Get your copy right here from good ol’ BVC.

This essay was first posted on December 15, 2011 at the Singularity Watch blog.

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Weird Science: How to Predict Your Death — 3 Comments

  1. Hmmmmm… sounds very interesting. However, looking back over my family history, I can tell how long I have to live. And I’ve cheated Death once anyway (and believe me, he doesn’t like it when a soul escapes his grasp and gets to laugh in his face to have that second chance). That was in 1996… and now? I feel like I’m crashing a big party: LIFE. It’s fun to get out and be the opportunist, to enjoy what I want to do. But I do look after myself. When I get sick, I sleep like no tomorrow because my body tells me to. I’m vegetarian, don’t drink booze, don’t smoke anymore (yep, gave those cancer sticks up over 10 years ago now) and I take care of my skin, hair and face. Now, I’m 40 next year and I’m looking and feeling great! I walk every day, try to drink plenty of water and have been getting into my back garden (I love getting my hands into the dirt and making my yard look great).
    My family history though… we have seen tombstones with relatives from our past names on them living to the ripe old age of late-80 and 90 years of age. It’s something we know shows that we have in our blood; that we can live that long too. All I have to do is look after the body I’ve been given; and I am. 🙂

  2. Also I am confident that everyone bright enough to read this can grasp that telomere tinkering only has an effect on your internal health. The longest and shiniest telomeres in the world will not help you in a mano-a-mano confrontation with a locomotive, or a Glock. In other words, other stuff can kill you.