Why Some People Are More Likely to Catch a Cold

The answer may be in your DNA structures

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Ever heard of telomeres? They may stand between you and your next bout with the sniffles.

Telomeres are protective sections of DNA that cap off the ends of chromosomes. They serve as a molecular clock for a cell’s lifespan; they shorten each time cells divide, gradually lowering the cell’s ability to function at its vibrant best. Researchers have linked shortened telomeres to aging and age-related diseases, with some suggesting that people who inherited longer telomeres live better and age better, noted CBSNews.

In the latest study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers say that telomeres may be connected to the body’s ability to fend off the common cold. The work suggests that the length of telomeres can predict risks for people as young as 22; and the association only gets stronger with age.

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To gauge exactly how those protective caps work, lead researcher Sheldon Cohen of Carnegie Mellon University and his team measured the telomere length of white blood cells from 152 healthy volunteers aged 18-55. They were later exposed to the rhinovirus, responsible for the common cold,  and quarantined in single rooms for five days to see if infections would develop.

Among 105 infected with the virus, 33 people developed colds. And individuals with shorter telomeres were more likely to get  respiratory infections, although this was only true among those aged 21 or older. Overall, people with shorter telomeres in a specific type of blood cell – a CD8CD28 T-cell that is critical for eliminating infections — were more likely to succumb to infections.

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Cohen said this was the first time scientists connected the length of telomeres to the health of young and middle-aged people. But the work doesn’t mean that those with shorter telomeres are doomed to sniffle and sneeze through every cold season. “This is preliminary research and further work with other viruses and with natural infections will help clarify its implications,” he said in a statement.