Most people misunderstand what aging is. It’s not just the public who have been deceived — Most scientists and medical researchers who study aging are on the wrong track.
The culprit is the “natural medicine” movement that has dominated thinking about our bodies for the last 50 years. “Respect the body’s wisdom. Work with the body to fix what has gone wrong.” This approach has worked so well with injuries and many diseases that it is understandable that people want to extend it to aging as well.
Diseases of aging have been treated as if they were something that goes wrong, something we have to help the body to fix. But in fact, the evidence accumulating in recent decades is that aging is not something that goes wrong, and the body is not trying to fix it. Aging is natural. It is the body shutting itself down, putting itself out of the way after it has done its job, finished reproduction.
How do we know that aging is an active process of self-destruction, and not just the body “wearing out”? There are a number of indications, becoming clearer all the time.
- For one thing, if the body were trying its best to keep in good shape, but can’t help wearing out over time, we would expect that damage to the body makes aging happen faster. On the contrary, most kinds of external damage actually make us live longer. The best example is exercise, which generates free radicals like crazy, tears muscles and puts little cracks in our bones. And yet, people who exercise tend to be healther and live longer than others who don’t. Starvation is also a way to live longer. Animals in the lab that are kept on very low calorie diets live much longer than those that have enough to eat. This is a clear indication that the bodies that get plenty to eat aren’t really trying to live a long time.
- If the body were doing its best to forestall aging, but succumbing eventually to wear-and-tear, we would expect that as we get older the repair functions would be going full-tilt. But in fact, all our repair and protection systems gradually shut down as we age. Stem cells, which produce new body tissues, gradually stop working. And the anti-oxidants that protect us from chemical damage are dialed down in old age, so we don’t have enough of such enzymes as CoQ10, SOD and glutathione.
- Clearest of all: there are actually self-destruction mechanisms that we can see in action. One of them is inflammation. When we are young, inflammation protects us from invading microbes, and kills diseased cells; but when we get old, inflammation is dialed up much too high; it kills healthy cells, inflames our arties, leading to heart disease, and inflammation causes cancer as well. Another mechanism we can see in action is called apoptosis, or cell suicide. When we are young, only cells that are diseased or defective remove themselves via apoptosis; but when we are old, healthy muscle and nerve cells simply fall on their swords and die, leading to weakness of muscle, weakness of mind and Parkinson’s disease.
This explains why “natural medicine” has been so helpful for infectious diseases, immune function and response to trauma, but in stark contrast natural medicine has failed to make headway against cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, and has made only marginal progress against heart disease and stroke.
For these diseases of old age, we need to abandon the natural approach, and instead simply trick the body into thinking that it is younger. Then it won’t try to shut itself down.
In fact there are some intriguing indications that this might work. There are researchers working with this approach and they have produced some dramatic successes just in the last few years:
- Every chromosome in every cell contains a time-keeper, tacked onto the tail end of the DNA. This is the “telomere”. Simply by resetting the telomere clock, scientists have produced dramatic results in lab animals, reversing aging and making animals younger.
- When the telomere clock signals a critical age, the cell becomes “senescent”. It goes and strike and refuses to do its job. Worse yet, it sends signals to nearby cells that cause the other cells to become inflamed and cancerous. Recently, scientists have had remarkable success making mice live longer simply by removing the small number of senescent cells.
- As we get older, the hormones circulating in our blood gradually change. This is the principal way that the body knows how old it is. There are youth hormones that promote rebuilding and high-efficiency energy output; and there are old-age hormones that turn up inflammation and cell suicide and signal the body to gradually destroy itself. Scientists have begun to have success by increasing the former and decreasing the latter, resetting the hormone profile of an old animal to match that of a young animal.
These approaches have not yet made front page news, but scientists in the field already recognize their dramatic promise. If all goes well, we should expect breakthrough treatments that extend life and prevent the debilitating diseases of old age, coming on-line in the next few years.
Disclaimer: This is my own perspective, shared by a handful of world-class aging scientists, but it is not yet mainstream. In addition to the two views described here–programmed aging and wear-and-tear theories–there is another class of theories favored by mainstream evolutionary scientists, based on compromises that evolution has been forced to make. These compromises have been made up ad hoc to avoid the inference that aging evolved to benefit the community, not the individual.
There are a great deal of genetic phenomena, as well as hormesis, that can only be explained by programmed theories