PUMPING IRONY: Of Bicycles and Biology

It seems that in the not-too-distant future, you’ll be able to check into a clinic and get an enzyme that will extend your life. All I want to extend is this January thaw, so I can ride my bike to coffee shop.

We’ve been basking in our annual January thaw this past week, that brief period of mild temps that never fails to get me thinking that maybe this winter is not going to be as brutal and interminable as every other winter I’ve ever lived through and then quickly reminds me what a fool I’ve been to even consider that such a thing could be possible. The upside before the downside, however, is that I was able this past weekend to convince My Lovely Wife to drag her neglected bicycle out of the garage and hit the road (figuratively; it’s icy out there) with me.

We pedaled north to our local bookstore and camped out for a bit at the coffee shop nearby. The sun was out, the streets were mostly clear of the kind of glacial ice native to this season, and we sat there enjoying our coffee and wondering why we hadn’t done this before — of course knowing full well why we haven’t. It’s been too cold, too icy. It’s January.

We are constrained by conditions beyond our control. And sometimes that’s hard for geezers to accept. We want stuff to work out. We want winter to end in mid-January so we can ride our bikes to the coffee shop. We want telomeres that never shorten.

I’ve brought the whole telomere thing to your attention before. These are the protective ends of our chromosomes that keep our DNA from breaking down and, thus, slowing the aging process. The longer your telomeres, the longer you get to live, or so the theory goes. Size, as someone used to say, matters.

Bicycling and Your Telomeres

Helen Blau, PhD, director of the Baxter Laboratory for Stem Cell Biology at Stanford University, is the latest to peddle this idea. She and her colleagues were able to rapidly lengthen the telomeres in a set of cells by injecting a particular enzyme (TERT). “It might not be the Fountain of Youth to keep us young forever, but this discovery is a real shot in the arm. This work is a game-changer,” said FASEB Journal editor Gerald Weissmann, MD, who published Blau’s findings. “Biologists have long guessed that the key to a longer lifespan is figuring out how to extend telomeres. Helen Blau and her colleagues have just done that.”

It’s not completely clear to me at this point how this research might be translated into action for folks like me, whose telomeres are no doubt shortening, but if I exert a little biological visualization, I can imagine telomere-lengthening clinics popping up at strip malls in inner-ring suburbs all over America. Make an appointment, roll up your sleeve, that sort of thing.

I think I’ll pass, though. There are some things that aren’t made to control, and growing old is one of them. Like a Minnesota winter, you’re better off just enjoying what you’ve got at the moment.

, an Experience Life deputy editor, explores the joys and challenges of aging well.

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