What is Aging?


Aging is a natural process, yet worldwide we are in search of anti-aging solutions. With the advances of technology and research we are fortunate to have the choice of many products and treatments. Some make you look and feel younger, whilst others concentrate on slowing the aging process. To best understand how these products and treatments work, and what impact we can expect on the body, its helpful to understand exactly what aging is, and how the body ages.


What Is Aging?

Aging is the predictable maturing of living organisms, although the rate of aging varies greatly among individuals. There are two distinct types of aging:

  1. Intrinsic - caused by the genes we inherit. Regarded as the natural aging that commences at age 20
  2. Extrinsic - caused by environmental factors, such as exposure to the sun’s rays.

The physical manifestations of aging, our appearance, results largely from our “invisible aging” at cell level. The nucleus of every cell has 23 pairs of chromosomes. And they contain DNA or the genetic material of the cell. A prime cause of ageing is every cell’s chromosomes are capped with a protein button called a telomere.

As individuals age, these telomeres wear out and fray, slowing and halting the ability of the cells chromosomes to divide and make new cells. Normally, cells divide 75 times over a lifetime and afterwards the cell dies.


How Long Can We Realistically Expect to Live?

The maximum natural or biological life span is theoretically defined as the average number of years of life that is expected for a member of a population. Like most species, humans almost always die of disease or accident before they reach their biologic limit.

Different cultures experience different expected life spans. This difference is generally based upon genetics, diet, stress factors and environmental hazards. In the United States, the life span, which is estimated at 85 to 100 years, has remained about the same over the past 50 years. Life expectancy, however, is reduced by about 20 years due to the top ten causes of death.


Aging of Cells

Studies into the aging of the human body are still regarded as work in progress; however, a few clearly defined theories are widely supported in the medical research field.

The cells of the human body have significantly different life spans. Since aging at the cellular level is the greatest contributor to how old we look on the outside, it is worth understanding the physiology in a little more detail.
The red and white blood cells only survive a few weeks to months. Red blood cells survival averages about four months, after which they trigger a mechanism for their removal from the blood.

Cells with long life spans [years to decades] include nerves, muscles, heart cells, and reproductive cells. It is difficult to determine what changes are due to age and what changes are due to disease or environmental influences. As you will recall from Biology classes, cells renew themselves by dividing.

The aging of cells can be classified according to their rate of replication:

  1. Cells that are continuously dividing - cells in the bone marrow that produce red and white blood cells and the cells that line the gastrointestinal tract.
  2. Cells that are resting but can be stimulated to divide - cells that function to respond to tissue injury, found in the liver, parts of the kidney, and the cells lining blood vessels
  3. Cells that are past the replicating phase altogether.

This suggests the body has a mechanism for identifying and eliminating older body cells. Little is known about aging and cell death in long-lived cells. Nerves, which have been extensively studied in humans, are lost at different rates in different parts of the brain.

A cell's ability to reproduce typically declines with normal cellular aging, yet many age-related health problems involve increases in proliferation. For example, the prostate gland tends to increase its cells with age. One hypothesis is that aging may cause inappropriate cellular responses to signals to proliferate and to signals that tell cells to stop proliferating.

Normal Aging and Disease

Aging is not the accumulation of disease, although aging and disease are related in subtle and complex ways. Several conditions once thought to be part of normal human aging have been shown to be due to disease. For example, heart and blood vessel diseases are less common in populations that eat no meat and little fat, and cataract formation in the eye is largely dependent on the degree of exposure to ultraviolet radiation in sunlight.

The range of individual response to aging deserves emphasis. Biologic and chronologic age are not the same, and body systems do not age at the same rate within any individual. You might have marked arthritis or severe loss of vision while enjoying excellent heart or kidney function. Even those aging changes that are considered usual or normal do not necessarily represent the optimum outcome for an aging individual or society.

Next: What Causes Aging

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