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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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  • Profile picture of Michael Pietroforte

    Chris, exactly! A tradeoff exists between the average lifespan of a species and evolvability. Short-lived animals evolve faster, but can have less offspring. However, I think things are much more complex as many factors play a role here. For instance, the optimal lifespan depends on the niche, the available resources, the level of intra-species competition, the number of offspring, the number of predators and many more things.

    This is why I am always confused if scientists who support the damage theory of aging oversimplify things when they claim that evolution didn’t need to find a solution for aging because animals die anyway of other causes.

    At best, this is a nice philosophical idea but no scientific theory. A real theory needs to take all factors into account and then really do the math. And my guess is that it will then turn out that aging is programmed and not just the result of accumulating damage. That is, aging is a programmed, biological developmental process that has evolved to optimize the lifespan of a species.

  • Said another way short lived animals can evolve more quickly than long lived animals. However humans could not have evolved as we have with a lifespan of a mouse. On the other hand long lived species are at greater risk of extinction due to a rapidly altered environment as befell the dinosaurs. Nevertheless biology is infinitely mailable so aging is solvable. However  if challenges prove to be to great in pure biology, which I think is unlikely,  evolving to cyborgs or purely nonbiological solutions will be the alternative. One way or another the future is exciting.

  • Profile picture of Michael Pietroforte

    David Sinclair is one of the most renowned scientists working on biological aging. He has published a new book with the title Lifespan: Why We Age—and Why We Don’t Have To. This post is a summary of Sinclair’s Information Theory of Aging.

  • 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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