Aging & Longevity
How the Body Ages FAQ
Do you feel like age is catching up with you? Have you noticed wrinkles, hair loss, reduced physical energy, or diminished sex drive? Do you get sick more often than you used to?
Although we typically think of the external signs of aging, with the emergence of wrinkles and graying hair, aging is also an internal process that has roots at the cellular level. All the organs of our bodies are made up of individual cells that have limited life spans. While we are young, our cells divide many times as we grow. Our cells are capable of repairing themselves, communicating with other cells, and interacting with all the physiological molecules that ultimately define our current state of health. Scientists have discovered, however, that our cells have a limited capacity to divide and repair.
Laboratory studies have shown that cell aging patterns are genetically encoded and cell death occurs along a predictable schedule of events for different cell types. Our DNA is bundled into chromosomes, each capped with repeated sequences called telomeres. During cell division, the cell attempts to make a complete copy of itself, including all of its DNA, but researchers have discovered that these telomeres shorten over successive cell divisions. The telomeres help protect the DNA from radical arrangements (that might cause cancer, for example) and they can be lengthened by an enzyme called telomerase. If the telomeres are allowed to become too short, however, the cell senses this problem and puts in motion a cascade of events that will result in its own death. This mechanism of programmed cell death, also called apoptosis, is a critical part of proper human development and a natural part of the life cycle of a cell.
A cell’s life also comes to a close if its DNA sustains damage more quickly than the DNA repair machinery can compensate for it. One of the major causes of DNA damage in our cells is the presence of free radicals. These highly reactive molecules can cause significant damage to both the proteins and the DNA in our cells by undergoing chemical reactions with them. The free radical theory of aging suggests that these molecules accumulate naturally over time and that our DNA repair machinery copes less and less well with the damage. Thus, our physical aging would be correlated with this decline in the health of our individual cells. Free radical damage has also been scientifically linked to many age-related medical conditions, including arthritis, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Intriguingly, it has been shown that antioxidants can slow or stop the damage caused by free radicals by helping to balance the chemical reactions in the cells. Antioxidant levels can be increased by adding antioxidant rich foods to the diet or by taking nutritional supplements.
Because our cells become less resilient as we age, so do our bodies. We become more susceptible to illnesses and once we get sick, it takes longer to recover. Wounds may also take longer to heal. As some cells begin to lose function, they cease expressing hormones, further shifting our physiological balance. All of the changes to our immunity, metabolism, and body chemistry can have a huge impact on our health and well-being as we age.
Signs of Aging
Some of the signs of aging are superficial. Wrinkles develop, particularly near the eyes, mouth, and other expressive parts of the face. As the skin begins to lose its elasticity and the layer of fat beneath the skin begins to diminish, the face can take on a further wrinkled or gaunt appearance. Age-related hair loss may also occur in both men and women due to hormonal changes or genetic factors.
Our immune systems and cell repair systems gradually become less efficient as a person ages, responding less quickly and vigorously to challenges. People may become more susceptible to illnesses and, once acquired, find them harder to recover from. Wounds may heal more slowly and muscle soreness after exercise can linger longer. If cell and tissue damage accumulate more quickly than the body can make repairs, cell death will become more frequent, causing more aging related symptoms and maladies to emerge.
Significant hormonal changes also take place during aging. For women, the most radical change occurs with the onset of menopause, in which the ovaries lose function. In addition to the cessation of menstruation, there are other physiological changes that occur due to the sudden lack of estrogen production in the body. The changes in bone mineral density can lead to osteoporosis, increasing the risk of bone fractures. Sleeping patterns, libido, and mood may also be effected by menopause. In men, testosterone production continues during aging, though levels begin to decline after age forty. This reduction in testosterone can lead to hair loss, muscle mass reduction, and sexual dysfunction.
Some mental symptoms associated with aging include increased forgetfulness and difficulties learning new things. The brain becomes less pliable during the later years of life, though the chemical and structural changes that might mediate this phenomenon are unclear. The rate of cognitive decline varies from person to person and only drops steeply for some near the very end of life.
Risks of Premature Aging
While aging is a natural phenomenon, there are also lifestyle choices and other factors that can accelerate the process and reduce a person’s longevity. In other words, it is possible for people to prematurely age their bodies and shorten their lives.
Too much exposure to the sun can age a person’s skin prematurely. The ultraviolet (UV) rays in sunlight can damage DNA, hastening skin cell death. UV overexposure can also contribute to the breakdown of the matrix of collagen and elastin that forms the fleshy layer of skin beneath the surface. As the skin weakens, it loses its spring, sags, and wrinkles begin to form. The skin can also become freckled, dry, or blotchy. DNA damage from UV light can also increase the risk of developing skin cancer.
Excessive alcohol, caffeine, or nicotine can also accelerate the aging processes through direct cell damage or complications following long term use. Nicotine, for example, both increases the heart rate and constricts blood vessels, elevating blood pressure and putting undue pressure on the cardiovascular system. The complications of hypertension, atherosclerosis, and other cardiovascular diseases can dramatically reduce both longevity and the quality of the final years of life.
Poor nutrition and sedentary lifestyle can also push the metabolic balance of the body toward a more limited life span by increasing the chances of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and many other life-shortening conditions. Perhaps ironically, nutrition and exercise are often neglected in the interest of saving time.
The accumulation of toxins in the body can contribute to premature aging by stimulating the formation of free radicals or causing other types of cell damage. While pollutants in the air and water certainly contribute to a person’s toxin levels, many toxins are consumed unknowingly. Food additives and preservatives are quite common, even among superficially “healthy” foods. Hormones, pesticides, and industrial chemicals may also taint non-organic foods bought at the grocery store.
Insufficient sleep can also contribute to aging by denying the body its much needed rest and repair. Information processing and memory formation occur as the brain progresses through the phases of sleep, sharpening the mind while it rests. Sleep can also impact hormones, metabolism, and immunity, all of which influence our states of health. Chronic sleep deprivation and the resulting sleep debt can lead to a multitude of persistent health problems, affecting a person physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Finally, stress can prematurely age the body in numerous ways. Researchers have shown that stress can increase the speed with which telomeres shorten, causing cell death to occur more rapidly. Stress can also increase blood pressure, aging the cardiovascular system, and put significant strain on the nervous system and immune system. Stress can contribute to hair loss and wrinkle formation, both which can also make a person appear older than they are.
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