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Are telomeres the aglets of aging? Why the shoelace metaphor is misleading

Aglets protect your shoelaces

I just finished reading the The Telomere Effect by Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn and Elissa Epel (2017). I was somewhat surprised that the authors still use the shoelace metaphor throughout the book (every chapter starts with a picture of shoelaces) because Michael Fossel, another telomere expert, despises the metaphor...

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  • Thank you also for your reply, Michael.

    Yes, I don’t disagree that for a theory to abide to the scientific method, it usually needs to be quantifiable, measurable and predicting of repeatable phenomena. I have nothing to say against that. I did a BA in Forestry so I kind of know natural sciences, although I followed a different path 20 years ago and became a film director and cinematographer in the film industry, studies of which I did my MA.

    As you can see by my first comment, also I don’t have a lesser opinion about philosophy, when compared to science as science itself evolved from philosophy both historically and well… Philosophically. Some schools of philosophical thought like Phenomenology, where started by great mathematicians like Edmund Husserl.

    The only thing I was trying to say, and you showed me that you agree with me, is that Sinclair may have made a book for laymen with Lifespan where he may use terms like “damage” but the background for the laying out of that book was his scientific work, which I’m sure is not based in subjective language. He is after all the co-founder of the Aging scientific journal and of The Academy of Health and Lifespan Research.


  • Profile picture of Michael Pietroforte

    Miguel, thank you for your comment.

    First of all, as someone who has been trained in the philosophy of science, the history of science and quite a few different natural sciences, I can tell you that all reputable scientists make many wrong claims throughout their careers. Thus, I don’t think it is a good idea to simply believe everything just because it comes from a Harvard professor. It is a core value of science to question scientific theories again and again and no good teacher would want his students to buy just everything he or she says only because of his reputation.

    In particular, if you look at the science of aging you will notice that many high profile scientists contradict each other about very basic things. Thus, it is safe to say that many, if not most of the claims currently made in this field are oversimplifications or simply wrong.

    Secondly, you really don’t need to be a gerontologist to see that the damage theory of aging is not a scientific theory. By saying that is a philosophical idea I didn’t mean to belittle the theory. Philosophical ideas can often guide scientists to create good scientific theories. However, in some case they also lead to wrong theories.

    The reason why the damage theory of aging cannot be a scientific theory is because “damage” is not an objective term. If something is damaged or not is subjective. Natural sciences can only deal with objective terms because theories have to be tested empirically.

    Let me give you an example. Getting grey hair is a sign of aging. You can argue the reason why you get grey hair is because pigments cells die when you age and thus the process of colouring your hair has been “damaged.” You could also say the pigment cells die because they have been “damaged.”  However, grey hair also has an important sociobiological function. It marks members of a community as old and wise and can therefore help the community to master difficult situations if younger members get advice from those members with grey hair. Hence, getting grey hair increases the likelihood that your offspring survives.

    Thus, the question if the pigment cells are damaged or just have undergone a normal developmental process depends on your subjective point of view. From the point of view of evolution, everything works perfectly fine and as planned. From your point view (if you don’t like to get grey hair), your pigment cells have been damaged.

    In fact, there is no way to empirically falsify the damage theory of aging. It is too abstract for this which is why I say it is only a philosophical idea. Therefore, it can’t be a scientific theory of aging.

    Thirdly, I didn’t criticize Sinclair with this statement because he actually has a scientific theory of aging. The main point of his theory is that DNA double-strand breaks cause the hallmarks of aging. DNA breaks are objective because we can empirically observe them. Furthermore, it is possible to empirically falsify his theory. For instance, if we find a way of prevent DNA breaks or make them less likely and some hallmarks of aging stay unchanged, then his theory would be falsified.

    Notice that I don’t claim that his theory will really be falsified. However, to count as a scientific theory, clear empirical tests must exist that would allow us to falsify the theory. This doesn’t apply to the damage theory of aging.

  • Dear Michael,

    Speaking of contradictions, as you well put:

    “Of course, I am only an interested layman and no match at all for a high-class scientist like David Sinclair.”

    But then you say:

    “…scientists who support the damage theory of aging oversimplify things…” or “At best, this is a nice philosophical idea but no scientific theory.”

    Now I find extremely presumptuous that you, who have a superficial understanding on natural sciences compared to a Harvard professor like David Sinclair, would call his lifetime work “a nice philosophical idea but no scientific theory”. This lack of humbleness and respect is where you loose all capacity to argue on his theory.

    First of all, Lifespan the book, is not a scientific paper. If it was, it would probably be the size of an encyclopedia. It’s a very superficial way of outlining his theory for laymen to understand.

    Then you say “the optimal lifespan depends on the niche, the available resources” – this is oversimplifying things. Who told you that? Common sense? Everyday knowledge? A youtube video? Of course there is way, way more to why a species has the longevity it has, beyond available resources. Darwinism is falling off the shelf as we know it. It’s been proven wrong again and again and it’s exactly one of the points of David’s book (which I bought the day it came out) when he says that as scientists try to adjust the model as little as possible while trying to address unanswered questions, the model enters in crisis mode and that’s usually when old scientists try to resist changes proposed by new scientists… This idea that we are a mathematical function of the environment is outdated and primitive. In fact one of the problems of old theories is being too attached to Newtonianism and materialism and to “doing the math” as you state. Doing the math is no longer enough when you realize you live in a reality with objective and subjective components. Do you think you will ever explain subjective experience mathematically? Good luck with explaining the numbers of preferring yellow to purple. 😉

    No, where science is moving to is to models based on information but where free will and subjective interpretation of objective information, render subjective experience possible. As Immanuel Kant stated, certain aspects of reality (the categorical imperatives) are a priori structures of the mind, and not objective aspects of reality. Reality as we know it is a byproduct of the mind and its structures so, the mind resides outside reality. Reality is rendered, therefore created by the mind/consciousness… It’s not consciousness that is created by reality. Even mathematically you know you cannot contain the supra-set inside the sub-set. It’s pure logic. Consciousness is fundamental… Not matter. So be careful with trying to explain everything mathematically, materialistically and in an excessively deterministic way. Use logic… Not Darwinism. Aging is way more than a consequences of niche and resources.

  • This seems very reasonable. I think I have heard a recent BBC interview on the nature of Phage Therapy. It seems this area has been neglected, comparativeely…and some modern research is using DNA to guide the applicaiton of phages to cure/immunize a specific individual of a specific problem…However the modern (Non-Georgian) application of this strategy in England, is very expensive. However those who have the means will find a way…..DNA is a map.

  • Profile picture of Michael Pietroforte

    I think nowadays most health-related lifestyle recommendations are based on statistics and the possible causal explanations (biochemical pathways) are often without real empirical evidence. This is why recommendations change every few years. Before fats were all bad, now carbs are the main culprit. However, things are changing rapidly now because we more and more understand what it is going on a biochemical level in our bodies. I believe that eventually it will turn out that there are big individual differences and before a doctor can make any lifestyle recommendations he or she will need to see your DNA.

  • Thanks for your reply. I am trying to wrap up my evening here in Japan, preparing for tomorrow’s classes. But still I want to write a quick reply in case you have further thoughts before my Friday classes.


    It seems there is ALOT of smoke about the Telomeres that I was completely unaware of until I followed up on two scientific thought leaders mentioned in the posts. I am grappling with how I can perhaps use a couple of images to convey and cause some discussion on the topic among my business management students, if they choose to take up the subject.

    Finding causal relationships to issues in our environment, I think, is innate to thinking. But, when trying to present something so simply, ignoring the caveats for the “noble cause” of encouraging lifestyle changes…I think leads to disappointment among such believers…So, our textbook presents a wide cheap survey of technological and health/medical related topics for a semester of English vocabulary improvement….

    This topic is only Unit 2, so as you can see, I am brainstorming on an approach strategy to apply to the other topics, and encourage optional reseach with Japanese presentations on the topics. I have to provide the initial structure.

    Maybe one of my themes is “The hunt for Causal relationships” and the thinking that is required to believe them or not. I see that one cannot avoid having a sufficient education level to not only get an understanding, but more importantly question the assertions made by the Health Blog community.

    The blogger “Jesse” who initially wrote on a site promoted by Pinterest has a 2.2 million viewer site where he covers “the latest health news”, taking up several issues in one column, in easy English. Probably some of my EFL learners could read his columns. Perhaps it all works out in the end. However there is such a thing as “conflict of interest” which betrays our trust in what and who we listen to….And what is the borderline between fact and wistful thinking or simplifying for the sake of “the noble cause”. I am sure my students don’t stay awake worrying about this, but the people I feel close to do.


  • Profile picture of Michael Pietroforte

    Joe, thanks! You are right, all the studies that found that the telomere length depends on the lifestyle are just based on statistical correlations. However, there are possible causal explanations. For instance, if you have fewer infections, fewer cell devisions are required.

  • I am a Univ. English learning lecturer in Japan. The textbook I am using has a chapter on Telomeres effects on the body. I have tried to track down just one of the references given indirectly  that starts you can directly effect the length of your Telomeres by changing your lifestyle.

    This book review is very interesting, as the book” hype  cannot directly point to cause and effect on the telomeres length.

    I am going to trustyou reviews more in the future because of the quality of your work here.

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