The processes of aging are not as simple as the workings of an alarm clock or the passing sands of time. Rather than a genetic ticking of the hand bringing us to death’s door, aging should be understand as the cumulative effects of damage and experience. This occurs on a biological, psychological, and social level. Not only are there changes in the functioning of our biology as we get older, but the adage “you’re only as old as you feel” holds true – our actions and roles in society are dictated by how we conceptualise ourselves and how others perceive us. This shifting treatment comes both from how we act and how we look. Wrinkled skin, grey hair, and a frail body are all indicators that adjust our interactions. Chairs are given up on the bus. Appreciation for accumulated life experience may be bestowed, or dismissed with a scoff. Long have these visual indicators been considered inevitable, or at very most something to be masked. What if these changes could be prevented or reversed? Stopping the hands of the clock and even turning them back could become the name of the game.
“Heart disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, suicide…As time ticks on, these risk factors not only remain present but increase as the engine that is our body accumulates grime and rust.”
While time is inevitable, a growing number of researchers are challenging its effects on our bodies. With radically differing approaches and beliefs pertaining to their research, it can be easy to lump the work into the bucket of pseudoscience better suited to science fiction. Isolating aging is difficult as a number of processes contribute to its presentation. The use of oxygen in respiration results in the release of damaging free radicals that cause cellular damage. Telomeres gradually shorten, putting a cap on the amount of times cells can successfully reproduce. Malfunctions in genetic expression result in the creation of cancers – the uncontrolled, eternal growth of cells that is all too common in the modern world. Heart disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, suicide…As time ticks on, these risk factors not only remain present but increase as the engine that is our body accumulates grime and rust. These processes of decay and build-up of damage are what results in what we perceive as aging. Worse yet, many of these factors are multiplicative in their effect. As our frail bones prevent us from exercising, our mental health increasingly deteriorates as we are denied the cognitive benefits associated with exercise. This in turn further discourages exercise, leading to a cycle of decay.
“De Grey hopes his research institute can significantly contribute to the ‘problem’ of morbidity in later life that often results in death.”
One of the central figures in the “fight against aging” is biomedical gerontologist Aubrey De Grey. With popular TED talks, YouTube videos, and books on the subject, the bearded, guru-like figure has popularised the field of biogerontology. Employed as the “Chief Science Officer” at the SENS Research Institute, Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) is the concept that the effects of aging (senescence) can be made small enough as to contribute little or no negative impact on lived life. Through rejuvenation techniques that undo the damage of aging, De Grey hopes his research institute can significantly contribute to the “problem” of morbidity in later life that often results in death. This isn’t as straightforward as it seems. While curing cancer or solving heart disease would prevent these specific killers, this is of little help if the individual is debilitated by dementia four years later. This is the importance of extending “healthspan” as well as lifespan. The goal is not only to prolong life, but to also maintain health into old age.
The central argument of the SENS project is that the majority of the processes surrounding aging are inevitable by-products of life. Rather than trying to prevent these processes, the SENS paradigm would have the damage reversed. In order to overcome the multi-faceted aspects of aging and the plethora of diseases that result, they have identified seven underlying biological processes that cause aging. By funding research deemed applicable to their goal, the Institute encourages a number of scientists working under these seven processes and coordinates their efforts in order to defeat the entire monster rather than just one aspect. While De Grey has been criticised for channeling funding away from more achievable, shorter-term projects, he insists that ambitious goals are the only worthwhile ones in their field, and with proper research and funding, it would be possible to dramatically extend human lifespan within the current generation.
The alternative to De Grey’s approach of solving aging is that of prevention through lifestyle choices, or intervention mimicking these biological processes. The primary focus of these in recent decades has been the speculated benefits of calorie restriction (CR). Citing incredible examples of animal models where the health and lifespan of mice has been dramatically altered, adding well-lived years to the end of your life could be as simple as cutting meals strategically and adjusting our plentiful Western diet. Unpacking these assumptions are an important element of implementation. Speaking at the Schrodinger at 75 conference in 2018, Trinity’s Dr Linda Partridge half-heartedly laughed that the biggest problem with testing CR in human populations was finding people who could stick to the changed diets – while CR was found to be most effective at 70% of calories, participants were only successful at maintaining 90%. Not only that, but whether calories are the key factor, or the presence of certain minerals and nutrients are the influencers has been questioned. Nevertheless, the applicability of promising animal models as a means of solving the “aging problem” continues to be tested.
The fanatical reception received by the Twilight Saga raises moral questions about defying aging. Both protest and adoration surrounded the fictional relationship between 104-year old Edward Cullen and 17-year old Bella Swan. Would a 19th century suitor be morally perverse to pursue such a teenager? Challenging our preconceptions about age may not seem pressing, but as research pushes the field into new realms, certain questions have and will be asked. What if the treatments are reserved for the rich? How will treatments be distributed? How will subsequent generations be affected? What societal role and prejudices would emerge for the rejuvenated elderly? As the battle against the sands of time accelerates, the moment to debate these dilemmas draws ever nearer.