The Biology of Aging: Observations and Principles

By Robert Arking | Go to book overview

5 Human Aging

5.1
A Perspective on Human Aging

If we are fortunate, we will age. What do we have to look forward to? The popular assumption is that the end of our life will most likely be made up of physical disabilities, mental incompetence, familial rejection, loneliness, and poverty—that aging will inevitably lead to severe loss of physical, mental, and social functions. This pessimistic view has found its way into our life and our literature. Today, it is becoming more and more clear that these dour assumptions and conclusions may not necessarily be completely true or accurate. It is increasingly evident that, as Rowe and Kahn (1987) pointed out, the mere association of physiological and cognitive deficits with age is insufficient evidence for us to conclude that these deficits are determined by age. To some extent, this misplaced emphasis might have been a natural consequence of the fact that most early research on aging was carried out in medical schools as part of the geriatrics program and that aging thus may have been viewed as a special case of the disease process.

As pointed out in chapter 3, not only is aging an individual process that is easily confounded with the pathologies of covert illness and disease, but it is superimposed on the substantial heterogeneity characteristic of the human species. A good portion of this heterogeneity may be due to genetic factors, but an even larger proportion can be traced to environmental differences. A variety of cultural and psychosocial factors can play a significant role in modulating the aging process. The Duke First Longitudinal Study (Palmore, 1982) found that such nongenetic factors could contribute as much as 16 years to longevity in men and as much as 23 years in women (see chapter 8 for details). Furthermore, our social and physical lives do not exist in separate worlds with no communication between them. Rather, it is now certain that these cultural and psychosocial factors work by affecting our neuroendocrine and immune systems and in this manner modulate the physiological and cellular levels of body function. The brown antichinus and the Pacific salmon, for example, die as a result of stress-related, hormone-induced physiological dysfunction. Psychological stress shortens our telomeres. Our physical and social worlds are linked by well-known biological mechanisms. These processes, in turn, provide the physical basis underlying the concept that people who have led a well-integrated life often demonstrate less loss of function than others. One example of such an individual is David Gill, whose exercise data are shown in figure 3.9. These data show no age-related decrement in heart rate and oxygen uptake between the ages of 35 and 65 years. This is by no means an isolated example, as will become clear in the remainder of this chapter. These newer insights have shown us that aging is much more plastic and individual than was once thought.

Two lines of evidence support the plasticity of aging. One is the dispassionate description of agerelated changes, which will fill the remainder of this chapter. The other is anecdotal and serves mainly to show us the possibilities. Many people today are alive, vital and active at advanced ages;

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