FROM THE MOMENT WE’RE BORN, WE ALL EXPERIENCE THE EFFECTS OF AGING. MANY OF THESE EFFECTS ARE POSITIVE: IMPROVED COGNITIVE FUNCTION FROM BIRTH MEANS WE LEARN HOW TO READ, AND IMPROVED COORDINATION HELPS US LEARN TO WALK.
But most of us tend to think about the negative aspects of aging. From smile lines and gray hair to creaky knees and sluggish circulation, aging is something we begrudgingly accept as an inevitable part of the human condition. Bot does it have to be? That’s just one question in a series that longevity scientists have long pursued: exactly what is aging, why do we age, and what can we do to one day make age-related diseases a thing of the past?
July 15, 2020
01What is aging?
Scientists define aging as “a progressive loss of physiological function that can increase our overall susceptibility to disease and death.” While this definition isn’t exactly cheerful for most of us, longevity scientists see it as a thrilling puzzle just waiting to be solved. Why do we lose physiological function as we get older? Why are certain diseases, like Alzheimer’s, arthritis, and osteoporosis so inextricably linked to aging? And most importantly: what can science do to slow the loss of physiological function to help people lead longer, happier, healthier lives?
We may be decades away from having the answers to all of these questions. But recent scientific breakthroughs have identified the factors behind the first very important question: why do we age?
02Why do we age?
Longevity scientists have spent decades examining a range of species in search of commonalities that may hold the clue to why we age. The result: nine common factors observed across species known as the hallmarks of aging. Although each hallmark is unique, they all interact with one another to contribute to the signs of aging. By understanding these hallmarks and how they interact, not only can we better understand aging, we can begin to understand how to reverse its impacts.
03The Nine Hallmarks of Aging
Genomic Instability: As we age, numerous factors can damage our DNA. The more damage our DNA accumulates over time, the higher our chances are of developing age-related disease and signs of accelerated aging.
Telomere Attrition: Telomeres, the compound structures at the end of each of our chromosomes, shorten as we age. The shorter our telomeres get, the harder it is for our cells to multiply–making it more difficult for our tissues to regenerate and repair themselves. This compromised cell proliferation can lead to a number of age-related diseases.
Epigenetic Alterations: Throughout the course of our lives, our DNA can be chemically modified by both internal and external factors – for example, by the foods we eat or by UV exposure. These superficial DNA modifications determine which of our genes will be expressed or not expressed. As our DNA accumulates alterations with age, we’re more likely to see the activation of genes linked to inflammation and aging.
Loss of Proteostasis: Proteostasis maintains proper folding, degradation, trafficking, and biogenesis of proteins in our cells. As we age, proteostasis diminishes, which means our bodies start to create misfolded proteins. As these proteins accumulate in the body with time, they can lead to many issues, including chronic inflammation.
Deregulated Nutrient-Sensing: Metabolic activity, while essential to life, puts stress on our cells. To prevent this, our cells have nutrient sensing pathways that make sure they’re taking in the right amount of nutrition–enough to sustain life, but not too much to stress the system. As we age, these nutrient-sensing pathways deregulate. This is thought to be a primary factor behind age-related metabolic diseases like diabetes and obesity. (1)
Mitochondrial Dysfunction: Known as the “powerhouse of the cell,” mitochondria keep our cells healthy and functioning. As we age, our chance of mitochondrial dysfunction increases, thereby speeding the rate of apoptosis – cell death.
Cellular Senescence: Senescent cells are cells at the end of their life cycle that can no longer divide. When we’re young and healthy, our bodies naturally clear these cells away. But as we age, our bodies become less efficient at removing senescent cells. This leads to an accumulation of senescent cells that has been shown to increase inflammation and contribute to a number of chronic diseases.
Stem Cell Exhaustion: Stem cells are the vital source from which all of our cells emerge. As we age, the activity of our stem cells slowly decreases. This occurs for a number of reasons; for example, pro-inflammatory signals secreted by senescent cells reduce stem cell activity. This, in turn, makes it harder for our tissues to regenerate in the same way that they do when we are young.
- Altered Intercellular Communication: Cells are constantly communicating with one another to properly function. As we age, the signaling pathways our cells use to communicate can become disrupted. Without proper communication between cells, various forms of damage can occur.
03How to Optimize Your Healthspan
Longevity science is still in its nascent stages. So while you wait for breakthrough therapies designed to target the nine hallmarks of cellular aging, what can you do to support your own longevity? Luckily, we have answers. A number of simple lifestyle practices have been scientifically proven to optimize human healthspan and help us lead longer lives in good health.
Cold Exposure: Short-term exposure to extremely cold temperatures (think cold showers or a 60-second ice bath) has been shown to boost the creation of mitochondria, those cellular powerhouses that tend to decline as we age.
Plant-Based Longevity Diet: Cruciferous vegetables, avocados, olive oil, turmeric and garlic are all rich in nutrients that help reduce systemic inflammation–a leading factor in age-related diseases.
Regular Exercise: Like cold exposure, regular exercise creates a positive stress response in the body that supports the creation of mitochondria. Studies have shown that exercise can also actually reverse signs of aging in the brain.
Plenty of Sleep: Researchers at UCLA found that even one night of partial sleep loss among older adults can cause major cellular disruption. (2) Subjects involved in the study experienced signs of DNA damage and a senescence-associated inflammatory response in their blood in as little as one day after sleep interruption.
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- Longevity scientists study why we age and how to reverse the impacts of age-related disease.
- These researchers have uncovered 9 hallmarks of aging common to many different species.
- From DNA damage to the accumulation of senescent cells, these 9 hallmarks interact to cause age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s and arthritis.
- Some lifestyle practices like cold exposure, plant-based eating, and daily exercise can help slow some of these 9 hallmarks, improving our overall longevity.