Years ago I was interviewing a scientist who was part of the team trying to crack the human genome, the so-called ‘blue print’ of our body. He talked about the small amount of the genome that coded for proteins that help determine our genetic profile. He then dismissed the other more than 90% as ‘junk DNA”. I asked him why he called it junk and he said because it doesn’t do anything. I asked if maybe it does actually have a role but we just haven’t figured it out yet. He looked at me as if I were an idiot.
Now, I may well be an idiot but in this case I wasn’t wrong. Today scientists acknowledge that non-coding DNA does seem to have some biological role or function – even if we haven’t figured it all out. So, much like antiques, what was considered junk yesterday is today seen to have value.
Saints and sinners
The same may well be true of the much-maligned LDL, or so-called ‘bad cholesterol”.
A new study says bad cholesterol may not be all bad at all, and that in fact it may play an important role in our bodies, helping warn us when things are going wrong.
LDL got its name because it tends to build up in the walls of our arteries and slowly, over time, clog them up, increasing our risk of a heart attack. HDL – its blue-eyed, blond haired cousin – is known as ‘good cholesterol’ because it helps remove LDL from our ateries and clean up the mess that LDL left behind.
But now, a study in the Journal of Gerontology , says that LDL may have had a bad rap and that it might be needed to help us build stronger muscles and develop muscle mass, and that a lack of LDL – while seemingly good from a heart-protective perspective – might be bad for our overall health. In fact, in the news release accompanying the study the lead researcher – Steve Riechman of Texas A&M University – says “You simply can’t remove all the “bad” cholesterol from your body without serious problems occurring. It acts as a warning sign that something is wrong and it signals the body to these warning signs.”
Building up a strong argument
Riechman and his colleagues worked with more than 5o adults between the age of 60 and 69. These folks were in reasonable health but had not been physically active and none of them worked out regularly. The researchers put them through a series of fairly tough workouts and then measured their muscle mass and compared it to what it was before the workouts. They found that the folks who gained the most muscle mass also happened to have the highest levels of LDL.
Having strong muscles, particularly as you age, is important because without that you tend to be more vulnerable to falling, to breaking a bone, or just to being stuck indoors, unable to do anything fun. LDL seems to play a role in helping us develop those muscles, so while we need to make sure we keep our LDL under control to keep our hearts healthy, we shouldn’t go so overboard that it interferes with its ability to help our bodies in other ways.
Riechman says that people often say they want to get rid of the bad cholesterol “But the fact is, if you did so, you would die.”
Maybe bad isn’t so bad after all.
Just like our genome, maybe it’s not the DNA that’s junk, maybe it’s the science – or even the scientists.