Every decade or so, Awake! magazine looks at the research of aging scientists, that is, scientists who investigate aging, gerontologists. The picture changes dramatically. Twenty years ago, they hadn’t a clue about aging. But with success in mapping the genome, some began to think aging itself could be halted, or at least slowed. They got downright cocky, some of them, and there is still much optimism.
We all accept death as a finality. But there are things about it that don’t quite square. For instance, who hasn’t heard that we use one tenth of one percent of our brain? The exact percentage doesn’t matter. The question that matters is…..how did that come to be? There’s no way evolution can account for it. Mutations survive to be passed on to succeeding generations only if they give one an edge to survival. But we’ve just stated that we never use the 99.9% extra capacity. So where’s the necessary edge to ensure such excess brainpower is passed on? It’s as if you own a house as big a New York State, yet you only use a few hundred square feet for living.
Our immune system is also curious. Cut your flesh and your body repairs itself. Organs of the body continually replace cells with new ones so that, every few years, you are physically, an entirely different person. Imagine if your Buick did that. Would you ever need to replace it? With life, however, the repair process itself gradually slows down and stops. But why should that be?
Frankly, the picture corresponds with the Bible account that man was created to live forever, death coming about only through disobedience. Of course, this would require us to accept…..gasp…Adam and Eve, and painfully few, if any self-respecting scientists would ever make such a pathetic mistake. Still, many have come to view aging as a not inevitable human condition.
Our chromosomes have segments of repeating DNA at both ends that act much like tips on our shoelaces. Without them, the chromosomes would unravel and become unstable. Named telomeres, some scientists view them as key to aging.
Every time a chromosome divides to form a new cell, the telomere ends shorten. When they whittle down to nubs, after 50 or so divisions, the cell divides no more and soon dies. But a certain enzyme, called telomerase, prevents that shortening. With that enzyme present, cells in the lab divide indefinitely….they do not die. Unfortunately, they also tend to become cancerous. But it offers intriguing possibilities and consumes much energy from the gerontologists.
Will scientists figure it out, or will it remain always e beyond their grasp?