While many people search for the proverbial fountain of youth, you may be wondering why, do we age in the first place? For centuries, scientists, philosophers, and even laypeople have been debating the reasons behind aging. Is it simply wear and tear? Is it programmed into our cells? Are we just victims of bad luck?
Well, not quite. Animals age, plants age, and even rocks age. So, we know that it’s not just a human condition. But why? Why do we grow old? Why do our bodies age? Why do we have to age? They are all “age” old questions, aren’t they?
Bad puns aside, there are a few theories as to why we age. And, while scientists are still trying to figure out the answer to all of the above questions and more, the last few years have seen some pretty significant breakthroughs in the field of aging research.
So, let’s take a look at some of the most popular theories on why we age and explore the science behind each one. We’ll also dive into some of the latest research on aging and longevity, with just five of the most significant breakthroughs happening in our world today.
If you’ve ever wondered why we age, and if there are any plans to do anything about it, this article is for you.
First things first, let’s define aging. When most people think of aging, they think of the physical changes that come with getting older. You know, wrinkles, grey hair, achy joints... that sort of thing. But aging isn’t just about how our bodies look on the outside; it’s also about how our bodies function on the inside.
For example, as we age:
Our cells divide more slowly,
We produce less collagen and elastin (which keeps our skin looking young and plump),
Our hair follicles shrink (which is why our hair gets thinner and greyer),
And our muscles atrophy (which is why we get weaker).
Though it’s not just our physical appearance and strength that change as we age, our mental faculties also start to decline. As a result, we have a more challenging time learning new things, our memories aren’t as sharp, and we become more forgetful. We also become more susceptible to age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, heart disease, and cancer.
So, when we talk about aging, we’re talking about the gradual deterioration of our physical and mental abilities. But, of course, it’s important to note that there are also a lot of individual factors that contribute to how quickly we age. For example, our lifestyle choices, diet, environment, and even our genes all influence how fast (or slow) we age.
That said, there are some commonalities when it comes to aging. And understanding these commonalities is key to understanding why we age in the first place. So, let’s take a look at some of the most popular theories on aging.
The most popular theories on the science of aging can be divided into two main categories: programmed aging and damage-related aging. Let’s take a look at each one in turn.
Programmed Aging The first theory on our list is programmed aging. Programmed aging posits that we age because our cells are programmed to do so. In other words, aging is written into our DNA.
This theory has a lot of evidence to support it. For example, studies have shown that the length of telomeres (the protective caps on the ends of chromosomes) predicts lifespan in a variety of species. In humans, shorter telomeres have been linked to a higher risk of age-related diseases like heart disease, stroke, and cancer.
The second theory on our list is damage-related aging. This theory posits that we age because our cells accumulate too much damage over time. This damage can come from various sources, including oxidative stress, inflammation, and glycation (the buildup of sugar molecules on proteins).
Damage-related aging also has a lot of evidence to support it. For example, studies have shown that oxidative stress increases with age in an assortment of species. In humans, higher levels of oxidative stress have been linked to a higher risk of age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and diabetes.
When you bind both of the above theories together, you start to get a clearer picture of why we grow old. So far, we’ve looked at two main theories: programmed aging and damage-related aging. Now, let’s take a look at some of the most popular hypotheses that fall under these categories.
Wear and Tear
The wear and tear theory posits that we age because our bodies simply break down over time, much like a car or a piece of machinery. Our bodies merely succumb to the effects of time and gravity, and eventually, we reach a point where we can no longer repair the damage.
This theory, proposed by German biologist Dr. August Weismann in 1882, is the most widely accepted theory of aging and is deeply ingrained in the way we think. It’s our culture, after all, that tells us we’re “over the hill” when we reach a certain age. But while the wear and tear theory of aging is the most widely accepted theory, it’s important to note that many experts see this as an ancient hypothesis that’s no longer relevant.
For instance, scientist Josh Mitteldorf in his research titled ‘Aging Is Not a Process of Wear and Tear,’ states: “The idea that bodies wear out with age is so ancient, so pervasive, and so deeply rooted that it affects our thought in unconscious ways. Undeniably, many aspects of aging, e.g., oxidative damage, somatic mutations, and protein cross-linkage, are characterized by increased entropy in biomolecules. However, it has been a scientific consensus for more than a century that there is no physical necessity for such damage.”
This shows us that, while the wear and tear theory is widely accepted, it’s not without its criticisms.
The Free Radical Theory
Next up, we have the free radical theory. This science of aging theory posits that we age because our cells are damaged by free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that can damage DNA, proteins, and other cell structures. They’re produced naturally as a byproduct of metabolism, but they can also come from external sources, such as pollution and cigarette smoke.
Free radicals are linked to various age-related diseases, including cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease. And, while the free radical theory of aging is widely accepted, it’s important to note that - similar to the wear and tear theory - not all experts agree. Some believe that free radicals play a role in aging, but they aren’t the sole cause. They may impact the rate of aging, but they don’t necessarily cause it.
There isn’t anything we can do to prevent free radical damage completely, but we can take steps to reduce our exposure to sources of free radicals and promote cell repair. For example, eating a diet rich in antioxidants (such as fruits and vegetables) can help neutralize free radicals and protect cells from damage. And, getting regular exercise can help boost cell repair and regeneration. If you smoke, quit. All of these things can help reduce the impact of free radicals and slow the aging process.
The Genetic Theory
While there is a world of other theories on why we age out there, the last one we thought would be worth a mention here is the genetic theory of aging. Some experts say that your family is the best predictor of how long you’ll live.
Studies show that longevity is passed down from generation to generation, which is likely due to genetics. And to some part, it has been proven. For example, in one study, researchers were able to extend the lifespan of mice by 35% when they took cells containing particular genes from their organs.
But, it’s not just your genes that play a role in aging – it’s also the environment in which you live. For instance, if your parents smoked cigarettes, you’re more likely to smoke as well. And, if your parents lived a sedentary lifestyle, you’re more likely to do the same. So, while genetics may play a role in aging, the environment is also a factor.
It’s a cycle, really. Your genes influence your environment, which then influences your genes. Which then, of course, influences your environment. And so on and so forth.
And therein, lies the complex mystery of why we age. There’s still a lot we don’t understand about aging, but researchers are making progress. With each new discovery, we get one step closer to unraveling the enigma of why we age.
Speaking of new discoveries, here are five of the most promising breakthroughs in longevity research that will take us from a world of aging to a world of living longer, healthier lives:
Breakthrough 1: Cells Reprogram - According to new research, it’s possible to partially reprogram old cells and bring them back to youthful action.
Breakthrough 2: Tissue Regenerate - LyGenesis, a tissue, and organ regeneration business, proved that it could regrow functional ectopic organs in the lymph nodes of recipients using cellular therapy.
Breakthrough 3: Organ Rewire - Elon Musk’s Neuralink wants to make the brain even more helpful. The firm has been working on a brain-computer interface that may enable us to use our minds to control PCs and smartphones - and it’s ready for brain surgery. If it sounds like fun to you, just imagine what this might accomplish for people with severe age-related neurological diseases like dementia or Parkinson’s disease.
Breakthrough 4: Organ System: Reverse (The Epigenetic Clock) - For the first time in our long history on this earth, Dr. Greg Fahy has demonstrated that it may be attainable to reverse our biological age. This was made possible by scientist Steve Hovarth’s epigenetic clock, which works by examining gene expression alterations. It’s already been trialed for 1 year, and in that time, it reduced participants’ biological age by two and a half years!
Breakthrough 5: Organism Rewrite - Wouldn’t it be great if we could discover a cure for every disease and ailment and stop wasting our time? Well, it doesn’t seem too far off anymore. In principle, it appears that second-generation genome editing can cure 89% of human diseases.
So, now that we've covered the present facts and the future of longevity research, let's circle back to the question at hand: why do we age?
The answer, it seems, may be a mix of things. We age because of our genes, our environment, and the choices we make. But, with each new discovery in longevity research, we’re getting closer and closer to finding ways to slow down the aging process. or even reverse it. And that’s something we can all be excited about.
What are your thoughts on aging? Do you have any tips for slowing down the process? Share them with us in the comments below!
Afiya is a digital platform that offers an integrated journey toward improved wellness and healthy, functional longevity. Through biomarker tracking, data-driven recommendations, and treatment coordination, you can understand your current biological age, optimize your body’s potential, and track your progress.