The role of DNA
Most of us first encounter deoxyribose nucleic acid, more commonly known as DNA, in our high school biology class. We learn about this remarkable part of our cells that contains the genetic information that defines who we are, what makes us all so different, and that DNA drives the diversity of life on planet Earth. We inherit our DNA from our parents – half from each and the combination manifests into the incredible human being you are today.
Almost every cell in our body has its own copy of DNA and uses it as the instruction set or code that determines its function and remarkably, that same DNA is used in our skin cells, our heart cells, our brain cells – in fact all of the over 200 different cell types we have in our body have identical copies of our DNA and what makes one cell different from another is simply the genes that are expressed. We have learnt that DNA is a little like software that codes for all the proteins in our bodies and that our DNA is a dynamic sensing molecule that adapts to our cell’s needs, the external environment that we live in and even the level of mental stress that we are experiencing.
Step by step your DNA’s secrets are being revealed
Like all areas of human pursuit, our understanding of DNA continues to grow at an ever-accelerating pace. We now know that our DNA is the primary driver for how fast we age, that we have a DNA clock that moves faster for some people and slower for others. We know that through our habits, our thoughts, certain supplements and our lifestyles we can slow this clock down or speed it up and we now know that DNA breaks between 50 and 100,000 times per day per cell necessitating a remarkable damage sensing and repair network of genes and proteins that work around the clock to repair those breaks and keep everything in good working cellular order and that these processes decline with age with a negative impact on our health. We know that we have little caps at the end of each of our chromosomes called telomeres that shorten with each cell division, when our cells experience oxidative stress and, incredibly, even when we are under mental stress and that shorter telomeres are associated with poorer health outcomes.
Fascinatingly, in the process of learning how our DNA senses and responds to our environment researchers have discovered an entirely new field of DNA research called epigenetics. Epigenetics is a field that describes how and what happens as our DNA adapts and changes according to the environment it is in. What is most exciting about this is that it shows that our DNA is not our destiny and that we all have the power to modify what genes are expressed or locked down through our lifestyles, the supplements we take and by changing the environment we are in. And more than that, our activities and choices today can define the genes that are expressed in our offspring and their offspring as well. Imagine that! Living consciously and being mindful about your health before starting to plan a family can deliver health benefits to your grandchildren!
Tick tock goes your DNA clock.
All of this research has culminated in the discovery that your DNA clock turns out to be the primary driver for the speed at which you age. Your DNA clock is closely correlated with your chronological age – defined by your date of birth and how many years you have experienced. But for some their DNA clock can vary from their chronological age leading researchers to suggest that we have two ages. Our biological age, which describes your DNA clock and drives the age that your cells are acting and your chronological age. The former may be the most important number as it predicts how fast or slow you are aging. We all know those older adults that hit their 80s, 90s in good health and with tons of vitality. These folk have a DNA age or a biological age that is much lower than their less youthful contemporaries.
With this understanding we now have amazing insight into how to take control of aging at a cellular level and that this knowledge means that we can start to take some of the risk out of getting old so that more of us arrive at this milestone in good health and with vitality.
The key to aging well.
All the things that we know are good for us like a healthy diet, regular exercise, mindfulness, certain supplements, and social interactions can now be measured for their impact on our DNA clock by sophisticated tools that can count the level of methyl groups on and around specific areas of our DNA. The more we actively take steps to be healthy the slower we accumulate methyl groups on our DNA and encouragingly for us all, we can reverse the level of DNA methylation by taking proactive steps to improve our cellular health. There are people who have a chronological age of 60 that have managed to reverse their biological age to one that you would typically see in adults who are 30.
Being able to measure your biological age gives us the insight into what we can do to protect our DNA, our telomeres and ultimately slow the aging process so that we can all be healthier and younger for longer.