Scientists are interested in looking at DNA tips to predict susceptibility to disease. / PhotoDisc
Fortunetellers claim they can forecast the future by reading tea leaves, tarot cards or your horoscope.
But a preliminary study suggests that our susceptibility to infections such as the common cold - and maybe our future health overall - may be foretold not in the creases of our palms but in the tips of our chromosomes.
These tips, called telomeres, are special DNA sequences that act like the plastic tips on shoelaces, preventing the DNA in chromosomes from unraveling. They get shorter each time a cell divides, until a cell can't divide anymore and it dies.
Scientists are interested in learning more about telomeres in order to better understand the process of aging and why people become more susceptible to disease as they age, says James Crowe, a professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville who wasn't involved in the new study.
In that research, which included 152 adults ages 18 to 55, researchers found that adults with shorter telomeres were more likely to become infected with colds. Everyone in the study was deliberately exposed to a cold virus.
Researchers weren't really interested in predicting which people are most susceptible to colds, says study co-author Sheldon Cohen, a professor at Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University. Instead, Cohen used cold infections to gauge the strength of volunteers' immune systems.
Overall, 69% of people became infected with cold viruses, and 22% actually got sick, according to the study, published Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
But those rates differed according to the length of the telomeres in a type of white blood cell: 26% of volunteers with the shortest telomeres got sick, compared with 13% of those with the longest.
That makes Cohen wonder if the length of the telomeres in people's white blood cells is related to their overall health and future risk of disease.
Studies in older adults have found that telomere length is related to the risk of age-related ailments, such as heart disease, cancer and infections, Cohen says. Previous studies also have found that telomere length doesn't change much over a 10-year period.
But there's been little research into the telomeres of young people, like those in the new study.
Cohen says his study raises the intriguing possibility that telomere length isn't just a sign of chronic disease, but a predictor of it.
Aaron Glatt, a doctor and spokesman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America, notes the study won't change how patients are diagnosed or treated.
"It has zero practical ramifications," Glatt says.
But Crowe says many people, including doctors, wonder "why some people get infected with colds and some don't. Two seemingly healthy people might be side by side, and one gets infected and one doesn't."
Crowe says the study is "provocative because it comes out of left field." But he added that the study is too preliminary to be convincing.
"It's quite a small study to make such a profound discovery," Crowe says. "It's not a validated study, but it's unusual and interesting, and it needs to be followed up. That's how science works. We get many ideas, and many of them don't pan out."
One of the most intriguing questions raised by the study, Crowe says, is what causes telomeres to shorten.
Earlier studies have linked shorter telomeres to smoking, radiation and psychological stress, such as early life maltreatment and taking care of a chronically ill person.
A small but growing number of studies suggest that early childhood adversity can cause telomeres to shorten more quickly than normal.
In a 2011 study, for example, researchers found shorter telomeres in Romanian children who had spent more time in institutions, compared with children sent to foster care.
Last year, a study in Molecular Psychiatry found that telomeres shortened more quickly in children exposed to violence, such as physical maltreatment, domestic violence or bullying. Leaders of the study of 236 children followed kids from ages 5 to 10.
Better nutrition, exercise and stress reduction are three things that may be able to lengthen telomeres, research says.
In general, however, unless these children's lives change, they could be expected to develop diseases of aging, such as heart attacks or memory loss, seven to 10 years earlier than their peers, authors of the 2012 study concluded.
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