Live longer, healthier: prospects ahead

More news just in on the health and longevity front. At the University of California San Francisco medical center, which I can see from my studio window but that’s about as close as I will ever come to claiming kinship, a clinical trial getting underway will investigate the telomere factor. You haven’t been worried about your telomeres? Get used to them. It hasn’t been so long since cholesterol and genomes became household words.

Bay Area women who volunteer for a clinical trial at UCSF will be among the first people in the world to learn the length of their telomeres – the protective caps at the ends of chromosomes that regulate cell aging and may help people live longer, healthier lives.

Research has shown that the length of people’s telomeres is related to their “cellular age” – the health and stability of certain cells in their body. Because telomere length helps determine cellular health, it’s also been identified as a possible biomarker that can reveal information about a person’s overall health. Short telomeres have been linked to health problems like heart disease and diabetes.

UCSF researchers say it’s possible that identifying a person’s telomere length someday could become as common as checking cholesterol levels. A handful of private companies already have started advertising telomere testing to individuals. In fact, two of the researchers involved in the UCSF study are looking into starting their own company to test telomere length.

The study, reported by Erin Allday in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, will concern such issues as what relationship your telomeres’ length have to health and aging in general, and whether you even need to know a lot about the little cellular-ites. “The idea of telling people their telomere length is totally new and somewhat radical…,” said Elissa Epel, an associate professor of psychiatry at UCSF and one of the lead researchers in the telomere study. (On a purely personal, though relative note: you just try not to worry about it all when you are overage — they want women 50 to 65 — for an aging study and the lead researcher looks like she’s about as old as your granddaughter.)

Medical ethicists say the UCSF study makes sense – as more attention is drawn to telomere length as a potential marker of overall health, doctors should understand whether it benefits their patients to get that information or not.

If people can’t change their telomere length, there may be no point in telling them. Telomere length may be similar to some types of genetic testing that tell people whether they’re at increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease or certain types of cancer, said Arthur Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics.

Some individuals may decide they want that information – but it’s not always an easy decision to make, he said. “You might find out that you seem to be a premature or rapid ager, but whether there’s anything anybody can do to stop it or reverse it, that remains to be seen,” Caplan said.

How much our telomeres will tell us, what use we can make of it all, and whether you and I really want to know — these issues remain to be seen. Or at least, to be discovered in  the coming study. I have absolute trust in the folks at UCSF. If you do too, and you fit the parameters (female living somewhere in this lovely part of California, between 50 and 65) and want to volunteer to be a part of it all, whip off an e-mail to knowyourtelomeres@ucsf.edu.

UCSF to look at new longevity, health marker.

Ethical dilemmas for one and all

In case you don’t have enough medical/political/ethical dilemmas on your plate, William Saletan tossed out a hefty bunch, in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, to chew on:

The most powerful revolutions of our age aren’t happening in Washington, the Muslim world or the global economy. They’re happening in science and technology. At a pace our ancestors couldn’t have imagined, we’re decoding, replicating and transforming the human body. These revolutions are changing how we live, what we think and who we are.

Bodies used to be unalterably separate. Yours was yours; mine was mine. That isn’t true anymore. Organ transplantation has made human parts interchangeable. Thanks to aging and obesity, global demand for kidneys and liver tissue is increasing. Meanwhile, anti-rejection drugs and other innovations have turned more and more of us into potential donors. But supply isn’t keeping up with demand, so doctors, patients and governments are becoming more aggressive. Death is being declared more quickly so organs can be harvested. Rich people are buying kidneys from poor people. Governments are trying financial inducements to encourage donation. The latest proposals, outlined in Sally Satel’s “When Altruism Isn’t Enough: The Case for Compensating Kidney Donors” (2008), include tax credits, tuition vouchers and cash. As pressure grows from the left through socialized medicine, and from the right through free markets, organs will increasingly be treated either as a commodity or as a community resource.

The one that catches my eye (see Looking at One’s Own End-of-Life Choices, 7/30; Palliative Care: Rush Limbaugh vs the Grannies, 7/24, and a slew of other recent posts) is confronted in a reasonable, head-on fashion.

Beyond transplantation and mechanization looms the broader question of longevity. Over the last half-century, the age a 65-year-old American could expect to reach has increased by one year per decade. In 1960, it was 79. Today, it’s 84. Life expectancy at birth has passed 78 in the United States and 83 in Japan. We have no idea where these trends will end. It’s been just six years since we decoded the first human genome and less than two years since we learned how to make adult cells embryonic.

The cost of caring for old people will be enormous, but that’s just the beginning. We’re fixing and replacing worn-out body parts for older and older patients. How much life do we owe them?

The long-run solution, outlined by Robert N. Butler in “The Longevity Revolution” (2008), is to treat longer life as a resource, not just a goal. That means exploiting its benefits, like wisdom and equanimity, while focusing medicine and lifestyle changes on extending health and productivity rather than dragging out the last bedridden months.

It is well past time for us to stop looking at prolongation of life, regardless of quality, as the be-all-and-end-all of health care. Religious groups, right-wing factions and assorted others are screaming that even coverage of honest conversation with one’s physician about prognosis, treatment and options is going to shove people into early graves. But conversations of such sort, and civil discourse in general, are desperately needed.

OK, according to the above statistics this writer still has eight years before my projected demise; but I am definitely one of the grannies Mr. Limbaugh and his ilk profess to be protecting. Thanks very much; rather than drawn-out bed-ridden months I will take wisdom and equanimity any day, if our health care reformists will please focus on addressing health and productivity for all ages. Problem is, the voices of “protection” are drowning out the voices of reason. Which makes this not just a dilemma but a potential national tragedy.

Crossroads – You – The Updated Owner’s Manual – NYTimes.com.