Digital and personalized health is changing the way we think about healthcare. Quantified information about our cellular well-being is no longer just for scientists, but also for those interested in being proactive about their lives.
Telomeres, for example, strongly correlate to health and longevity, and data on telomere length can be used both by health enthusiasts to make positive lifestyle choices and by researchers to develop proactive health interventions.
Telomeres: The protective caps of chromosomes
Simply put, telomeres are the end-caps of chromosomes; they protect the chromosome from deterioration and degradation. Each time a cell divides, the chromosome is imperfectly replicated, which results in shorter telomere length. Upon this happening, telomeres no longer adequately protect chromosomes, which is a key part of the ageing process. Eventually, telomere shortening leads to senescence, or cell death.
Can telomeres grow?
It has in fact been shown that telomeres can maintain their length and even grow with positive lifestyle choices. This includes Yoga, endurance exercise, meditation, and a healthy diet (specifically, the Mediterranean diet). Meanwhile, negative lifestyle choices including eating poorly, smoking, and not exercising shorten telomeres. Since longer telomeres correlate to a longer, healthier life, it is in your best interest to live healthy and maintain long telomeres.
The skeptics: Correlation does not equal causation!
And they happen to be correct. The fact that telomere length is correlated to various interventions, does not with certainty mean two things
1) That lengthening telomeres after the fact of telomere shortening will lead to a longer, healthier life
2) That correlations in big data are necessarily causal
Starting with the first criticism, numerous studies have shown that increased telomerase activity (an enzyme which increases telomere length) leads to an increase in cellular lifetime, even after shortening. The likely conclusion is that increased telomerase exhibition (which is possible by interventions such as a healthy diet, yoga, and exercise) is likely to extend lifespans partially due to better cellular health.
Regarding the second, it is absolutely correct. Big data can lead to many incorrect assumptions. For one, the divorce rate in the state of Maine is strongly correlated with US per capita consumption of margarine. While the two are unlikely to be truly related, there is a strong correlation. The same mistake can be made with big data, but it does not mean that big data is not important. There is an important place for big data in the hard sciences, even if it does pose some challenges.
So how does this relate to me?
Healthier living in the future is highly dependent on data gathered today. There is no way to change the fact that computers are a big part of modern life and physical labor is largely unproductive. People are living longer but also encountering unprecedented health challenges due to sedentary lifestyles, new forms of pollution, and the consequences that come with our bodies enduring more years. Humanity must find new ways to be healthy, without relying solely on a traditional methods of staying well. We must see technology as the solution to our health problems, not the problem.
Today, several companies (Titanovo included) are working on big data projects which collect important health information for researchers to decipher and come up with new, proactive health interventions. It is our hope that in the near future, this data will be used to promote longer, healthier lives. Today, enthusiasts can use this data to better their personal health.
Personalized and proactive health care may be the next big step in not only treating but preventing a wide range of ailments, individually and as a society.