Aging, A New Look

By Richard Lewis

We all want to live along time. At the same time, we want to live a vital, full life to the end.

A recent issue of Science quoted from a play Czech science fiction writer Karl Capek wrote in 1926, called “The Makropulos Case.” It is about a 372-year-old woman named Elina Makropulos, who wanted an elixir to renew her life another three centuries.

In the play, a lawyer named Kolenaty says indignantly that living so long is “an absurd idea … Our social system is based completely on the shortness of life. Take for example contracts, pensions, insurance, wages, probate, and the Lord knows what else.”

But we are living longer today. Life expectancy has increased in Europe and the United States from less than 47 years in 1890, the year of Capek’s birth, to 75.5 in 1993, according to Science. This is an increase of almost 40% in a little over a century.

With the rise in life expectancy comes an increase in the number of Americans over 65. The fastest expanding segment of older Americans is the frailest, according to Science, those over 85 years. These are the ones requiring the most care-the ones about whom the lawyer Kolenaty would be most concerned.

But does frailty always come with aging? There are many Americans still contributing a great deal in their 80’s and 90’s. Some say we are meant to be like the proverbial one-horse-shay-to run right up to the very end and then fall apart all at once.

We see both the frail and extremely vital elderly today. Research tends to show that the one-horse-shay concept is possible. Both genetic theory and the concept of oxidant stress and aging reinforce this.

S. Michal Jazwinski, with the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Louisiana State University Medical School, explains how genes play into aging. “The life maintenance reserve is a genetically determined functional potential that allows the organism to survive, at least to reproductive maturity.” He adds, “The life maintenance reserve is modulated by epigenetic factors [factors other than genetic such as biochemical]; the environment during development is of fundamental importance … The post developmental environment exerts its effect-usually though not always, promoting aging-through damage, stress, and disease.”

The “though not always” comment is the encouraging part. Aging, like other processes of the body, is affected by the epigenetic and environmental factors, of which biochemistry is very important. As Hugh Riordan, M.D., Director of The Center says, “Life is 100% genetic and 100% biochemical.” Because of this, he is more interested in the epigenetic than the genetic factors.

As the life maintenance reserve Jazwinski referred to is drawn down by negative epigenetic and environmental factors, aging rushes on But if one tends to refill this reserve through biochemistry (vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, amino acids, etc.) and positive environmental factors, the odds are in favor of slowing or even reversing the aging process.

In other words, if you have a high level of biochemical reserves, then the life maintenance reserves are greater to slow or reverse the aging process.

The oxidative stress hypotheses of aging is equally encouraging. “The basic tenet of the oxidative stress hypothesis,” wrote Rajindar Sohal and Richard Weindruch in Science, “is that senescence related [aging related] loss of function is due to progressive and irreversible accrual of molecular oxidative damage.”

In short, free radicals run rampant through the body, accumulating at a much faster rate than life maintenance reserve can handle them and one ends up on the slippery slide toward death. Since rust is an oxidative process, it could be said that one begins a rapid rusting process. This always conjures up images of old fann equipment rusted beyond use, abandoned out in the field. Had it been given some oil and a coat of paint, it could still be operating instead of rusted solid. Our situation is similar; regular preventive maintenance keeps us running rather than rusting.

Science tells us that our genes are our destiny, but not our only controlling force in aging. Epigenetic factors and environmental factors help control the action of genes in aging. The Center believes that if one keeps the antioxidant reserves as high as possible, keeps the types of stressors as low as possible, and participates in a regular exercise program, it is possible to live up to the greeting of Star Trek’s Mr. Spock- “Live long and prosper.”