When a headline in the Washington Post dubbed COVID "A Plague of the Elderly," I cringed, envisioning Logan's Run, the sci-fi classic in which people past a certain age voluntarily die. The film came out in 1976, the year I graduated college.
That would make me, well, elderly.
Yes, older folks are over-represented among those who get very sick or die from COVID, with "nearly 9 out of 10 deaths now in people 65 or older," WaPo reminds us. That is striking for an age group that makes up only 16 percent of the population. But while media reports trumpet the damning statistics, few delve into the biology behind the elevated risk: it could be that our shorter chromosomes hamper the immune response.
The WaPo article, like others, states the obvious:
"The vulnerability of older people to viruses is neither surprising nor new. The more we age, the more we accumulate scars from previous illness and chronic conditions that put us at higher risk of severe illness."
Yes, a 75-year-old with COPD is less likely to survive COVID pneumonia than a 75-year-old with healthy lungs. And developing COPD is more likely after decades of exposure to irritants. But number of years by itself may be a surrogate for some other factor.
Might the culprit be telomeres, the tips of chromosomes? They shrink as time passes, like candles burning down.
To continue reading, go to DNA Science, where this post first appeared.