Life expectancy in the United States and other developed nations has increased remarkably over the past century, and continues to increase. However, lifespan has remained relatively unchanged over this period. As life expectancy approaches maximum human lifespan, further increase in life expectancy would only be possible if lifespan could also be increased. Although little is known about the aging process, increasing lifespan and delaying aging are the research challenges of the new century, and have caused intense debate and research activities among biogerontologists.
Many theories have been proposed to explain the aging process. However, damage to deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is the centerpiece of most of these. Recently telomere shortening has been described to be associated with DNA damage. Located at the ends of eukaryotic chromosomes and synthesized by telomerase, telomeres maintain the length of chromosomes. The loss of telomeres can lead to DNA damage.
The association between cellular senescence and telomere shortening in vitro is well established. In the laboratory, telomerase-negative differentiated somatic cells maintain a youthful state, instead of aging, when transfected with vectors encoding telomerase. Many human cancer cells demonstrate high telomerase activity. Evidence is also accumulating that telomere shortening is associated with cellular senescence in vivo. What causes changes in expression of telomerase in different cell types and premature aging syndromes? Does the key to “youthfulness” lie in our ability to control the expression of telomerase? We have reviewed the contemporary literature to find answers to these questions and explore the association between aging, telomeres, and telomerase.