Does Covid-19 make you age faster?
"Tell-tale" telomeres don't quite tell the whole tale.
Last week, best-selling author and Inside Medicine reader, Adam Grant emailed me with an interesting question—as he sometimes does. (Read his Substack, by the way). Adam wanted to know my opinion on whether Covid-19 accelerates the aging process. He linked to an interesting study from 2021 that looked at DNA structures called telomeres.
Oh, did I click that link! (Like many talented thinkers, Adam has a knack for asking timely and fascinating questions. If he’s interested in something, chances are that many of you will be too.)
Background: Telomeres are stretches of DNA at the ends of our chromosomes. Unlike other parts of our genetic code, telomeres shorten as we age. In general, shorter telomeres are found in people who are older, both chronologically and biologically. Some viruses are known to shorten human telomeres (HIV) and some are not (influenza).
Covid-19 and telomeres: The story remains unclear.
The data: This study measured the telomere lengths of patients who had recovered from Covid-19 (in 2020 and perhaps early 2021) and compared them to samples from volunteers who had apparently been Covid-free. Those in the Covid-19 group indeed had shorter telomeres than those who had not been diagnosed with the disease.
But I’m intentionally word-smithing here…
Adam’s question spurred me to read the paper he sent along, and also to dig around more on some related questions. Having spent some time with the literature, I’m not convinced that Covid-19 actually shortens telomeres. Here’s what I wrote in reply….