Welcome back to Healthspan Happenings, our weekly rundown of what’s going on in the world of longevity research and the science of aging. This week, we’re talking about how aging is becoming a target for medical prevention and treatment. Although aging is often talked about as a natural process, many side effects of older age might actually be preventable or even reversible. But is the key to healthier aging actually hidden within our cells?
If the Fountain of Youth actually exists…
We’ll find it as a fount of knowledge—not magical water. The more we investigate the processes of aging, the more we understand their microscopic mechanisms. In Ponce de Leon’s day, aging was less a biological problem and more of a natural progression of human development. Today, modern medical methods have peeked into the human cell and discovered that aging—like a disease—results from the degeneration of certain cellular functions.
Aging, in short, is a curable (or at least preventable) curse, a recent publication in JAMA suggests. According to this piece, many hallmarks of aging can be mitigated through medical interventions. The authors mostly reference animal studies, but those studies help us conceptualize aging as an unnatural process. In other words, the symptoms that we typically associate with aging actually arise from compounded cellular problems—problems that many researchers want to fix, prevent, or simply delay.
If aging is curable…
Do we want to cure it? Medical institutions don’t typically view aging positively. It obviously beats premature death, but older age comes with its own set of problems. Issues include things like increased risk for chronic illness, dementia, and an onslaught of degenerative problems. For the most part, aging does more harm to the body than good. But what if older cells could actually improve our health?
Older adults, for instance, experience less scarring on their skin than their younger counterparts. A recent study investigated the mechanism behind this strange regenerative property of older skin cells. “This is a rare instance where aging actually improves the body’s ability to heal rather than diminishing it,” said lead author Dr. Thomas Leung. “When we’re younger, we secrete more SDF1 into the bloodstream to form scars, but as we age, we lose this ability, which allows tissue to regenerate.” So perhaps aging has its benefits. Instead of looking for ways to stop aging, perhaps longevity researcher should look for ways to combine the benefits of youth with the benefits of old age.
If aging is a cellular malfunction…
Then is healthy aging based solely on our biology? The question of “where” has plagued epidemiologists for years. Where are diseases located, facilitated, and dispersed? For centuries, the answer was strongly aligned with notions of immorality and filth. Today, we quickly associate the “where” of disease to viruses and germs. However, isolating the processes of aging to the cellular level misinterprets its many facets.
New scientific breakthroughs only constitute a small piece of aging cultures. People’s perceptions of aging significantly impact their experiences and their health in later life. And these perceptions can come from many outlets including television, magazines, and everyday experiences. For example, people in lower socioeconomic situations often dread aging, according to a study from North Carolina State University. And even when older adults can access options for healthy aging, social isolation keeps many of them in the dark. Even if we can biologically target aging, we must also remember that we are social creatures. Therefore, these “cures” for aging will have to go beyond the body if they have any hope for improving the quantity and quality of human life for all.