In 1997, a French woman named Jeanne Calment passed away after 122 years and 164 days on this Earth, making her the oldest known person in history. Her age was so astounding that a millionaire pledged $1 million to anyone who could break her record. But in reality, living to this age or beyond is a feat that very few, maybe even no humans, are likely to accomplish. Human bodies just aren’t built for extreme aging. Our capacity is set at about 90 years. But what does aging really mean and how does it counteract the body’s efforts to stay alive? We know intuitively what it means to age.
For some, it means growing up, while for others, it’s growing old. Yet finding a strict scientific definition of aging is a challenge. What we can say is that aging occurs when intrinsic processes and interactions with the environment, like sunlight, and toxins in the air, water, and our diets, cause changes in the structure and function of the body’s molecules and cells. Those changes in turn drive their decline, and subsequently, the failure of the whole organism. The exact mechanisms of aging are poorly understood.
But recently, scientists have identified nine physiological traits, ranging from genetic changes to alterations in a cell’s regenerative ability that play a central role. Firstly, as the years pass, our bodies accumulate genetic damage in the form of DNA lesions. These occur naturally when the body’s DNA replicates, but also in non-dividing cells. Organelles called mitochondria are especially prone to this damage. Mitochondria produce adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, the main energy source for all cellular processes, plus mitochondria regulate many different cell activities and play an important role in programmed cell death.
If mitochondrial function declines, then cells and, later on, whole organs, deteriorate, too. Other changes are known to occur in the expression patterns of genes, also known as epigenetic alterations, that affect the body’s tissues and cells. Genes silenced or expressed only at low levels in newborns become prominent in older people, leading to the development of degenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s, which accelerate aging. Even if we could avoid all these harmful genetic alterations, not even our own cells could save us. The fact remains that cellular regeneration, the very stuff of life, declines as we age.
The DNA in our cells is packaged within chromosomes, each of which has two protective regions at the extremities called telomeres. Those shorten every time cells replicate. When telomeres become too short, cells stop replicating and die, slowing the body’s ability to renew itself. With age, cells increasingly grow senescent, too, a process that halts the cell cycle in times of risk, like when cancer cells are proliferating. But the response also kicks in more as we age, halting cell growth and cutting short their ability to replicate.
Aging also involves stem cells that reside in many tissues and have the property of dividing without limits to replenish other cells. As we get older, stem cells decrease in number and tend to lose their regenerative potential, affecting tissue renewal and maintenance of our organs original functions. Other changes revolve around cells’ ability to function properly.
As they age, they stop being able to do quality control on proteins, causing the accumulation of damaged and potentially toxic nutrients, leading to excessive metabolic activity that could be fatal for them. Intercellular communication also slows, ultimately undermining the body’s functional ability. There’s a lot we don’t yet understand about aging. Ultimately, does longer life as we know it come down to diet, exercise, medicine, or something else? Will future technologies, like cell-repairing nanobots, or gene therapy, artificially extend our years? And do we want to live longer than we already do? Starting with 122 years as inspiration, there’s no telling where our curiosity might take us.