Size Matters

Biopolitical Times
Illustration of three chromosomes.

And yes, the double entendre is intentional. This is about size as well as about why size matters. And it all has to do with age and aging.

When we were kids, many of us were regularly lined up against some wall or door with a pencil leveled on the top of the head so a mark could be made to show how tall we were. We were probably excited to see how the mark on the wall kept moving higher and higher, a sign that we were growing that was more "real" than any dot placed on a paper growth curve in a doctor's office to see what percentile we were tracking.

Now that we are older, our kids or grandkids may be sharpening their pencils (do younger folks still use them?) to make marks on walls about our height. If so, these will likely document how we are going in reverse and, with age, getting shorter and shorter. (And perhaps these marks will only confirm what is revealed daily by bathroom mirrors that may now only reflect our faces from about the eyebrows up, not the best view for checking the state of our teeth.)

But our height isn't all that's going away. So, too, are the ends of the chromosomes in all of our cells, the parts of DNA at the tips called telomeres. And the only ones who may be excited about this phenomenon are those developing yet more new screening tests to predict our fate, from length of lifespan to maybe even risks for breast cancer.

Basically, telomeres are bits of DNA that protect the chromosomes on which they appear and which become shorter with each cell division. When telomeres get too short, a cell loses the ability to divide and either dies or becomes inactive. For those who like pictures, these multiple images offer a sense of what telomeres look like in a wide range of presentations.

We get shorter with age and so do telomeres; this is all quite normal. But because telomere shrinkage can be visualized with the right equipment, a new commercial opportunity seems to be opening up, with clever genetic capitalists applying what they can measure and developing a new gizmo to define where we stand on the mortality scale in comparison to others. Specifically, some researchers are working to perfect a "genetic thermometer" that will "assess a patient's (sic) health in relation to other individuals of the same age" by measuring telomere length to predict what shape we are in. In fact, direct-to-consumer telomere testing is already on the market, with more products on the way, though some experts call it “premature” and “not supported by scientific data.”

Even if there really is a way to use telomere length to predict lifespans, however, this mirror into our inner workings raises some troubling questions. How might this information be used? By whom? When? Why? What occupational options might be foreclosed if someone is predicted to have a shorter working life? How could insurance policies be applied in a discriminatory way? Might this create a height-ocracy? And, as for all screening tests that provide only statistical averages, what will be the actual predictive value of telomere length for any particular individual? (That’s an issue no one ever seems to address.)

Genetic predictions have always been dangerous when used as crystal balls to tell individual fortunes. This danger only increases with the refinement of the tools to look at chromosomes and genomes, which we really know so little about yet believe in so much. So caveat emptor: be wary of buying into this latest fortune telling hype.

If shorter size is a problem, perhaps a better investment would be yoga, or other ways to improve posture so we stand and sit up straighter — even wearing shoes with higher heels or working in chairs that have liftable seats.

As for lengthening lifespan, well, there may even be a "fix" for this: the ancient practice of meditation. Lately, this practice seems to be appearing as the preventive for problems ranging from depression to high blood pressure and — yes, the shortening of the telomeres! This is not to suggest that researchers have finally found the "fountain of youth" some have long sought, from which the transhumanist death defeaters want to drink. But at least meditation probably has no adverse side effects — and even if it doesn't extend the length of telomeres, it may extend the quality of the years we have. Better to stretch and bend our bodies than to stretch the profit lines of Pharma and the biotech industry.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: