Last Wednesday afternoon, my phone rang.
"Hello, this is Jim", I answered.
"Hello...Jim Kalb...this is a voice from your past", replied the voice on the line.
Although I had not spoken with him in more than a decade, I immediately recognized the voice.
"Ruben!...how are you?...are you still in Monterrey?"
My old friend, Ruben Corvalan, is one of a few Renaissance men I have known in my life. I met him back in 1987 as I began a new career at Cooper Bussmann. Not only is he one of the world renown experts in his field (grounding and arc-flash), he has studied a variety of other disciplines in great depth just for the sheer joy of learning something new.
More importantly, he has the innate ability to distill very complex and abstract concepts into easy-to-understand information for the non-technical layperson.
To top it all off, Ruben is a native of Santiago, Chile (thus the reason I was able to recognize his voice right away). English is his second language, but his communication skills incredibly adept, especially when considering the complexity of the subjects he teaches.
Ruben left Bussmann about the same time as I did in order to pursue his entrepreneurial dreams to become a consultant and teacher in Monterrey, Mexico in the early 1990’s. I managed to stay in touch with him for a while traveling down to Monterrey on a couple of occasions but after some time, we lost track of one another. I had not spoken to Ruben in over 10 years.
"Jim...I am coming to San Diego on Friday and I want to see you so we can catch up after so long. I’ll be in town through the weekend and I’d really like to try and get together if possible."
We agreed that it would be best if I picked him up from the airport, check him into a local hotel and talk over a long lunch.
On Friday, I met Ruben at the airport. He hadn’t changed a bit other than a manicured beard he now sported.
I took him to his hotel and then we went off to get some lunch.
We ended up talking for the entire afternoon and much of the evening.
He explained that he was in town for a symposium on human aging. Several years ago, he had begun to study the process of aging (just a passing interest) and found the subject to be most fascinating. I’m certain that Ruben was one of the few people at the conference that who was not medically trained but most likely understood almost all of the technical discussions.
The subject of biology (specially aging) is one that has always intrigued me as well. I’ve never been much of a life scientist but I have tried to acquaint myself with the basics in order to make informed decisions.
Aging is defined as the accumulated changes in an organism over time and measured chronologically. Scientists who have studied the aging process in humans will tell you that the biology of aging is complex and although there are several theories, there are few absolutes.
What the researchers do agreed on is that there are two direct factors that are highly correlated to the aging process:
- Molecular oxidation of cells
- The shortening of telomeres during cell reproduction cycle.
Now...I’m not a biologist, but here’s what little I do know...
We hear a lot about the anti-oxidants effects of several types of food and supplements but what exactly is oxidation and how does it happen?
The oxidation effect in human cells was first theorized and studied by a scientist name Denham Harmon back in the 1950’s. He discovered that molecules in living cells could be attacked by certain ionic atoms called "free radicals". These free radicals could react with healthy molecules causing mutations in cells in the same way iron reacts with oxygen (from water and air) to cause rust (iron oxide).
These mutated cells have been linked to cancer tumors, arthritis, atherosclerosis, and other related diseases.
As we age, the population of free radicals increases in our bodies.
Anti-oxidants (such as those in certain foods) can help to reduce the free-radicals present in a cell which reduces the chances of cell mutation.
The second reason we age is due to the shortening of telomeres during the cell reproductive cycle.
In all cells, there are chromosomes which contain the DNA structure that establishes the characteristics of the organism. The chromosomes are long strings of protein molecules that form genes. During the cells’s reproductive cycle, the chromosomes create a mirror image of themselves and then divide. This process is called mitosis.
In the mid-1970’s scientists discovered that each chromosome has a protective cap on each end not unlike that of the plastic ends on shoe laces. These protective caps are called telomeres and help the chromosomes to properly replicate. This discovery was groundbreaking and the scientists working on this research were awarded the Nobel Prize in 2009.
What researchers have found is that each time the chromosomes reproduce, its telomeres are shortened. After a certain amount of replications, the telomeres are too short for the cells to reproduce any further. This is called the Hayflick Limit.
When we are young, our chromosomes are able to reproduce so we can create new healthy cells to replace the older cells. As we age, the body’s cells reach the Hayflick Limit and can no longer replicate.
Today there are many laboratories around the world doing research to help increase the telomere length in chromosomes. In doing so, scientists may find a way that allows the body’s cells to continue to replicate well beyond the natural Hayflick Limit.
Someday in the future, there may be a way for a human being to live a life of 150-200 years with the body of a 20 or 30 year old (if you think steroids and HGH are bad for sports...just wait!).
Additionally, stem cell research may actually turn the clock backwards allowing people to "un-age".
The futuristic idea of anti-aging is thrilling to some and quite frightening to others.
There are so many ethical questions that still need to be answered and I’m certain that the debate will rage on for years (I wonder what position pro-life / pro-choice will take on this?).
Unfortunately, there is no way to stop science from progressing. That train has already left the station.
The future is here...long live the past.
Late Friday evening, after talking with my friend for nearly 8 hours, I said good-bye to my friend Ruben and thanked him for once again teaching me something significant about a very complex subject in a way that was somewhat easy to comprehend.
I sure hope that it won’t take us another 10 years to reconnect again...but then again...if we both live to be 200 years old...I guess it won’t seem like such a long time...
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