The Biology of Aging: Observations and Principles

By Robert Arking | Go to book overview

Preface to the First Edition

If we are truly fortunate, we will age. Each of us will struggle with this fate in our own way. There has been much attention focused on the biomedical, economic, social, and psychological aspects of human aging, but until recently serious biological attention was given to this topic by only a few farsighted innovators. In part, this was because our attention was mostly focused elsewhere—perhaps on the triumphs of molecular genetics in deciphering the genetic code and in unraveling the molecular mechanisms that regulate gene action. These biological insights are traditionally viewed in the context of embryological development. The reasons for the neglect of the rest of the life cycle are not clear, but they probably had a lot to do with the scientific and cultural prejudice that aging is not a fundamentally interesting or attractive biological process. But our concepts have now changed, in part due to the demographic changes taking place in society and in part because we are now beginning to understand that our present biological views will not fully explain aging. Perhaps it was necessary to attain our present level of understanding of embryological development before we could appreciate the complexities inherent in the biological problem of aging.

I view aging as a fundamental biological process that can be defined, measured, described, and manipulated. My researches and readings have led me to suggest that aging is a genetically determined, environmentally modulated, eventdependent process. I have tried to construct this book so as to serve the reader as a guided tour through the literature that has led me (and others) to this conclusion. Although I have taken care to present the conflicting data and opposing points of view that characterize this unsettled field, the book is not intended as a monograph addressed to other specialists. I have written this book for students of aging (be they formally enrolled or not) who have a level of biological knowledge no more sophisticated than that provided by any good introductory biology textbook. I believe it is important for people conversant with the sociological and psychological aspects of gerontology to also be knowledgeable about the biological aspects of aging and the implications of the current research for their own fields. I have tried to explain in a clear manner the logical bases of the arguments and have veered away from overwhelming the reader with too much unnecessary jargon and details. But interpretations cannot be made without data, nor without thought, so I selected what I believe to be pertinent facts and observations. I hope the reader will think about them and not just accept them uncritically.

Let me explain the organization of the book. I believe it is important to first be sure of what it is we think we know. Accordingly, we begin the journey with a rigorous definition and exposition of exactly what does—and does not—constitute an aging change. The CUPID (cumulative, universal, progressive, inherent, deleterious) definition developed here guides us through the thickets of facts, interpretations, and complexities that beset the path. I then discuss the several ways of measuring aging. It is a difficult task and one which is often skipped, particularly by those of us bearing childhood fears of mathematical thoughts, but it is important to master the concepts involved (if not the numbers) simply because of the old axiom, If you cannot measure what you are studying, then you do not know what you are talking about. I do not propose to weigh the human spirit, but there is no reason not to assay our bodies or measure our molecules. I have deliberately adopted a comparative approach to the study of aging. If aging is a fundamental biological process, then we can learn

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