It would be quite tough for some to consider aging as a disease. Conventional understanding tells us that aging is a relentless and unstoppable natural biological process. However, because of the myriad of health conditions associated with growing old—including the development of metabolic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular failures, cancer, and cognitive impairment—it is also hard not to consider this inevitable process as a biological malady.
Explaining and Considering Aging as a Disease
Both aging and disease result in the same outcome—the impairment of normal biological function. Several scientists have maintained that aging is indeed a medical malady. More specifically, by studying the science behind this biological process, these experts have come up with an interesting assumption that not only considers aging as a disease but also a preventable outcome. There might be a cure for aging.
British researcher Aubrey de Grey is one of the several scientists who have regarded aging as a form of disease. His research interest centers on an approach called “Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence,” and it involves identifying the different biological components and mechanisms that cause human tissue to age, and designing remedies for each of them. Accordingly, doing so will stall disease and push back death.
The approach is intriguing and exciting. Even the MIT Technology Review challenged other researchers in July 2005 to disprove this emerging theory of aging. The editors asked members of the scientific community to demonstrate the impossibility of engineering cells and tissues to achieve negligible senescence.
Of course, despite this apparent critique against the ideas of de Grey, the distinguished journal publication considers the British researcher as a “man of ideas” who is committed to transforming the meaning of humanity.
Nevertheless, to better understand why several scientists consider aging as a disease, it is important to understand its definition from a biological perspective and how it correlates with the emergence of age-related diseases.
Exploring the Different Definitions of Aging
There are different theories that provide different explanations regarding the causes of aging. These include evolutionary theories, the free-radical theory, the Hayflick Limit, tumor suppression through cellular senescence, and systems-based theory. However, remember that these theories perceive aging as an outcome.
Considering aging as a disease means perceiving it as a cause rather than an offshoot of another cause. G. A. Burton defines aging within the box of cellular senescence, which by definition, is the irreversible growth arrest of individual mitotic cells. He further noted that such growth arrest contributes to the development or progression of several diseases.
A literature review by Teresa Nicoli and Linda Partridge also explains why aging is a risk factor for disease. Accordingly, insulin signaling pathways, nutrient-sensing pathways, mitochondrial activity, DNA damage response, and telomere limits are biological processes associated with aging. However, these processes also play a prominent role in disease development.
SENS Research Foundation, a nonprofit scientific organization dedicated to understanding negligible senescence, mentioned that the diseases and disabilities of aging are caused by the accumulation of damage in tissue over time. De Grey, during his 2005 TED talk, also mentioned that this accumulation of damage is a side effect of metabolism.
The specific offshoots of metabolism include cell loss and tissue atrophy, development of cancerous cells, mitochondrial mutations, the emergence of death-resistant cells, extracellular matrix stiffening, extracellular aggregates, and intracellular aggregates.
It cannot be denied that the groundwork for considering aging as a disease is undeniably reasonable. Hence, in threading this line of thinking, it would be fair to say that a possible cure against aging might exist.
Ongoing Research on Finding Cure for Aging
Renowned biologist and geneticist Cynthia Kenyon has been revolutionizing the science behind aging. One of her biggest breakthroughs was figuring out that carbohydrate intake is a universal hormonal control for aging. Her experiments that involve carb-restricting diets resulted in extending the lifespans of animal subjects, including worms, mice, rats, and monkeys.
The findings of Kenyon are somehow similar to the research of neuroscientist Stephen Ginsberg, who has established the link between high carbohydrate diets and age-related cognitive impairments such as Alzheimer’s disease.
A literature review by Celine Lafontaine mentioned several regenerative medicine techniques aimed at combating the side shoots of aging. For instance, gene therapies are useful for manufacturing replacement tissues or for reengineering the human body.
SENS Research Foundation is currently funding and developing technologies related to regenerative medicine. As mentioned, central to this medical approach is the need to remove, repair, replace, or render harmless the cellular and molecular damage that has accumulated in tissues over time.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Burton, D. G. A. 2008. “Cellular Senescence, Aging, and Disease.” AGE. 31(1): 1-9. DOI: 1007/s11357-008-9075-y
- Lafontaine, C. 2009. “Regenerative Medicine’s Immortal Body: From the Fight Against Aging to the Extension of Longevity.” Body & Society. 15(4): 53-71. DOI: 1177/1357034×09347223
- Lee, S. J., Murphy, C. T., and Kenyon, C. 2009. “Glucose Shortens the Life Span of C. elegans by Downregulating DAF-16/FOXO Activity and Aquaporin Gene Expression.” Cell Metabolism. 10(5): 379-391. DOI: 1016/j.cmet.2009.10.003
- Niccoli, T. and Partridge, L. 2012. “Ageing as a Risk Factor for Disease.” Current Biology. 22(17): R741-R752. DOI: 1016/j.cub.2012.07.024