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Telomeres

If you want to lengthen your life, you need to lengthen your telomeres. That’s the message from the marketers of a pricey dietary supplement called TA-65. How pricey? Try up to $4000 for a six month dose! But for that you are getting Nobel Prize Technology, or so the ads say. Well, that’s not exactly so. The Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology in 2009 was awarded to Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak, who incidentally was a McGill graduate, for their work on telomeres. But the work had nothing to do with the dietary supplement being promoted. So what are telomeres? They are short strands of DNA found on the end of the long threads of DNA that are packed into chromosomes. Their role is to protect the chromosomes from degradation. A common analogy is to the plastic protective caps on the ends of a shoestring.

The telomeres are manufactured in the cell with the aid of an enzyme called telomerase. When cells divide, chromosomes are copied and if they are not properly protected by the telomere caps, they become damaged. That brings on a host of problems from diabetes to heart disease to aging. With each division, though, the telomeres become a little shorter. If telomere length could be maintained, cell aging would be slowed down. That is an exciting prospect. Indeed, numerous studies link shorter telomeres to health problems. Of course this doesn’t mean they are the cause, they may be the result of disease.

But when it comes to marketing, a little bit of truth can be made to stretch a long way. The T and A in TA-65 stand for Telomerase Activator, with the message being that the product will lengthen your telomeres and supposedly your life. It is made from an herb that has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine called Astragalus membranaceus which is supposed to boost telomerase activity and thereby produce more telomeres to protect the chromosomes. There is some evidence that this actually happens in aging mice.

In one experiment, when fed the supplement, the geriatric mice showed a lower percentage of very short telomeres as well lower insulin levels, increased hair regrowth and increased skin plumping. Longevity, however, did not change, neither did average telomere length. Overall, not very impressive. As far as human studies go, there is only one, and it was sponsored by the company. In 13 older men and women who took the supplement for 12-18 months, the average telomere length did not change but some clever data mining revealed that in the cells of seven of the volunteers the percentage of short telomeres declined. No anti-aging effects were noted. At this point there is no evidence for recommending this expensive supplement. But it is noteworthy that a low fat diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains and plant protein, along with moderate exercise and stress management can lengthen telomers. And with that there is no risk and you don’t have to fork out four grand for a dietary supplement. A final thought. Why is this marketed as a dietary supplement? If it really did what it claims to do, that is affect a fundamental change in cells, shouldn’t it be regulated as a drug?

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