How the Body Ages
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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.
Begin Your Journey to Wellness with Patients Medical
Our job at Patients Medical is to listen, to connect the dots between a patient's
medical history, symptoms, and their underlying causes. Patients Medical is a superb
place for women and men to secure integrative and holistic health care from providers
who give personalized care, partner with the patient to focus on the root cause
of their illness, support their recovery, and help them maintain good health.
For those that can make the journey, we are happy to welcome new patients to our
medical center in New York City. Call us at
. We are here to listen and to help.
We are located at: Patients Medical PC, 800 Second Avenue, Suite 900 (Between 42nd
& 43rd Street) Manhattan, New York, NY 10017
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