The science of aging: can we live forever?



Can aging be stopped or slowed down? Or is it simply an inevitable process that we must accept? As humans, we have grown accustomed to the fact that we will all eventually die and grow old in the process. But what if this not actually the case? New scientific advancements shed a light on the potential increasing life expectancy of humans, and whether we can slow down the physical processes associated with aging.

With an average life expectancy of 81.2 years in the UK in 2019, aging researchers are set to discover whether this life expectancy can be increased. An array of studies reveal promising leads to solve the root cause of growing old, despite the limitation of medicine not considering aging as something that needs to be medically treated. However, if aging can be slowed down, a vast number of chronic diseases associated with aging (such as cancers and cardiovascular disease) would also decrease, increasing global populations over time. Debate as to whether planet earth can support a greater global population is a further limitation to aging reserach. 

Symptoms of aging include:

  • Hearing loss
  • Poor eyesight
  • Weak muscles
  • Slow heart rate
  • Hight blood pressure
  • Decreased mental agility
  • Dry skin
  • Risk of chronic disease

Empirical evidence suggests that aging is the root cause of many chronic diseases. Therefore, solving this phenomena will lead to longer life because people will be less likely to contract a disease in the first place. Centenarians (people aged over 100 years old) are thought to not just be lucky – there are numerous genetic factors involved as to explain why they live so long, compared to the average UK life expectancy of 81.2 years in 2019.

The first major lead to offer an explain as to why we age, was the discovery of telomeres in the 1980s. These are protective caps on our chromosomes that exist in the nucleus of body cells. The problem is that as we age and our cells continue to divide, the telomeres get shorter in length, eventually disappearing altogether. This causes the cell to die due to the lack of protection of the chromosomes by the telomeres.

An experiment involving the C.elegans worm revealed that the lifespan of organisms could be increased as a result of genetic manipulation by mutating a certain gene. This corresponded to mice and fruit flies too in further studies. Specifically, the DAF-2 gene in C-elegans worms was removed. This is the gene that regulates insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels. In nomal circumstances, the C.elegans worm has a lifespan of 14 days, but after removing the DAF-2 gene, the worm lived for double that time.

This was an incredible discovery, explained by the notion that the worm thought that it had to conserve its food and energy. Therefore, it could live longer since it had ample food supply. Scientists are hoping that this finding could translate to humans. It is now thought that certain diabetes drugs (such as metformin, which comes from the French lilac), acting on the IGF-1 gene (the human equivalent of the DAF-2 gene) could have similar effects.

Another prominent research area is that of senescent cells. These cells continue to release and transfer chemical signals even after it has stopped dividing. Removing these cells, or ‘flushing them out of the body’, is thought to potentially decrease the rate of aging.

Moving forward, scientists are optimistic that aging research will accelerate over the next decade, leading to more advancements and discoveries that could ultimately change the way that we perceive the duration of human life.

Featured image by Raychan on Unsplash

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