The Biology of Aging: Observations and Principles

The Biology of Aging: Observations and Principles

The Biology of Aging: Observations and Principles

The Biology of Aging: Observations and Principles


Robert Arking'sBiology of Aging, 3rd edition, is an introductory text to the biology of aging which gives advanced undergraduate and graduate students a thorough review of the entire field. His prior two editions have also served admirably as a reference text for clinicians and scientists. This new edition captures the extraordinary recent advances in our knowledge of the ultimate and proximal mechanisms underlying the phenomenon of aging. As a result, six important conceptual changes are included here:
Clarified distinctions between the biological mechanisms involved in longevity determination and those involved in senescent processes. A new conceptual framework around which we can organize all the new facts about aging. This will assist readers to make sense of the information and use the data to form their own ideas. Increased knowledge of aging cells has lead to new ideas on how a cell transits from a healthy state to a senescent state, while still allowing for high levels of intra- and inter-specific variability. Discussion of senescent mechanisms assists the reader to understand that aging is a non-programmatic loss of function, likely arising from the loss of regulatory signals, and so is modifiable in the laboratory. Because the standard evolutionary story does not fully explain the evolution of social organisms, this edition also includes recent work dealing with intergenerational resource transfers. Lastly, if aging mechanisms are plastic, then the demand to move these anti-aging interventions into the human arena will inevitably grow. A discussion of the biological and ethical arguments on both sides of the question frames the question in an appropriate manner.

The mass of data related to aging is summarized into fifteen focused chapters, each dealing with some particular aspect of the problem. The last two chapters integrate all this material into a coherent view of how the relevant biological processes change over the life span. This view is expressed in two non-technical figures (you might say that the whole book exists to fully support Figs 9-4 & 14-9), whose meanings are elucidated as the reader progresses through the book.


Through the centuries, sages have pointed out that many of the more profound aspects of human culture, the sometimes tragic struggle of humans against fate, originate in the fact that we all must die. Great art and major religions flow from the contrast between our boundless dreams and ambitions and the realities of our temporal prison. It is unclear when this concept appeared; indeed, it is unclear whether any other species shares with us a recognition of the inevitability of death, although some primate cousins share our sensation of an individual consciousness. Our Neolithic ancestors almost certainly were aware of our common fate and felt the same tension, for 50,000 years ago at Shanidar in what is now Iran they buried their dead on a bed of wildflowers.

Then, as now, senescence and death were likely to have been accepted by most people as given conditions of existence. The few dissenters searched for a magic potion or fountain of youth in attempts to escape their fate. Most people just searched for an explanation to justify their fate and were satisfied with a supernatural or religious interpretation. All were aware that humans age and, if they lived long enough, succumb to fraility, senility, and death. It is likely that this recognition by our ancestors that an altruistic life does not avert aging and death underlies the origin of religions (Holliday 2001).

Our preference for the new is not due solely to the efforts of the advertising industry to sell us the latest consumer item. Each of us absorbs as we grow up the undeniable truth that old things tend to wear out and break down: old toys, old cars, old machines—and old people.

Our reaction to this reality takes at least four forms, three of which have been best expressed by the artists among us. First is the acceptance and celebration of our mature years, freed of lingering diseases, as penned by Robert Browning:

Grow old along with me. The best is yet
to be,

The last of life, for which the first was
made …

Rabbi Ben Ezra,” 1864

Second is a refusal to accept aging. Many have fought senescence and death, knowing it to be a struggle they must lose but nevertheless fight because they could do nothing else. Dylan Thomas perhaps best echoes their feelings in these lines:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

(“Do Not Go Gentle Into
That Good Night,” 1953)

The difference between these two views is due, in part, to how one sees life. Perhaps Browning's proponent celebrates mature love and companionship, secure in the belief that mortality makes life and the enjoyment of it precious; that the . . .

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