Aging is No Longer an Unsolved Problem in Biology

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For much of the 20th century, the accumulation of a considerable amount of information about the processes of aging did not reveal the underlying mechanisms. Toward the end of that century, the biological basis for aging became very much clearer. It became apparent that the best strategy for animals' survival was to develop to an adult, but not to invest resources in maintaining the body, or soma, indefinitely. In their natural environment, animals do not survive environmental hazards (predators, disease, starvation, and drought) to reach a long life span. There is thus a trade-off between the investment of resources in reproduction, and the survival time of the soma. At a stroke, this solves the problem of different rates of aging in different species, because those that develop and reproduce fast also have short life spans, and those that develop and reproduce slowly have long life spans. This difference is due to actual resources invested in the maintenance of the adult soma. There is now much evidence that long-lived mammals have much more efficient maintenance mechanisms than short-lived mammals. Thus, aging can be defined as the eventual failure of maintenance. It also became apparent that many different maintenance mechanisms exist, and that these depend on very many genes and a considerable investment in metabolic resources. Most individual theories of aging revolve around the failure of a given maintenance system, but as there are many of these, it is likely that most of the important theories have some degree of truth. A broad interpretation of the different degenerative changes during senescence should therefore be adopted, with the major conclusion that aging is multicausal. It is also evident that the evolved design of many components of complex animals is incompatible with indefinite survival. We can therefore conclude that this evolved design is intrinsically related to the fact of aging. This in turn means that aging cannot be reversed, although it may be modulated, as, for example, by calorie restriction.

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