What is the science behind ageing? While prevention of ageing begins to feel more and more like a race against time or a quest to turn the clock back, understanding the actual process of ageing remains unknown to many. Which leads me to ask: Why are we so fearful of something that is unknown to so many of us?
Our pursuit of youthfulness is best represented through the pages of myth and legend. Stories of the Fountain of Youth, for example, date back to the 5th century, BC. This mythical fountain was rumoured to halt ageing for anyone who drank from or bathed in its waters. In other instances, monks turned to self-mummification in order to prevent their bodies from growing older. Finally, we mustn’t forget the stories of Henry II’s mistress, who practised drinking gold chloride in an attempt to preserve her famous youthful beauty.
What is ageing?
The imprecise and erratic nature of the ageing process makes it difficult to concisely define. As each of us experience ageing differently, reaching a consensus on ageing is almost as difficult as defying the ageing process itself.
While many cultures consider ageing a necessary element in the passage from one stage of life to the next, the scientific definition of ageing goes beyond transition from childhood into adulthood via adolescence. According to Oxford English Dictionary, ageing is: the “loss of a cell’s power of division and growth”. How does this translate into real terms? What are the main causes of ageing? What does the process of ageing consist of? When do we begin to age? Are there any advantages of ageing? And can ageing be hampered or halted?
What are some of the external causes of ageing?
There are a variety of factors in our lives that will cause extrinsic (external) processes that affect ageing. The external elements consist of factors such as: a lack of exercise, an unbalanced diet, smoking, heavy stress levels and frequent exposure to direct sunlight. All of these factors attack our DNA and eventually contribute to significant cell damage. These factors, as a result, will affect each person’s rate of ageing differently depending on their lifestyle. However, aside from these contributing factors, every individual has a hypothetical biological clock created by our genetic makeup.
What does the process of ageing consist of?
Our bodies are made up of trillions of cells which are constantly undergoing cell division and every time a cell divides it creates a copy of its own DNA in addition. This DNA is then packed into the 23 different chromosomes within our bodies. The issue is, each time the DNA replication is completed it skips over the end of each chromosome.
This is when valuable telomeres come into action, a telomere exists in order to protect us from losing vital DNA information whilst the replication process is occurring. Telomeres provide us with repeats of the DNA that we can’t afford to lose. However, each time the cells divide these telomeres become shorter and shorter until eventually we run out, at this point our cells will also no longer divide.
When do we begin to age?
Scientists have found that humans generally begin to age at 24 years old. The point at which cells stop replicating is known as cellular senescence and in humans this replication limit comes after around fifty replications, varying from person to person. Once the cell replication limit is reached the cells gradually begin to lose their function and die, causing age-related changes. The age-related changes consist of: loss of hearing, sight failure and subsequent failure of vital organs such as the heart, liver or kidneys.
This also explains why our life expectancy is a strongly heritable trait from our parents, because we got our initial telomere length from them. So it’s true that inherently some of us have an already decided longer life expectancy than others. However, living a healthier life will help to overturn your ingrained life expectancy.
Are there any advantages of ageing?
Initially our lack of cell division may seem like an unfortunate circumstance, however our limit on cell replication actually helps to prevent cancer, as cancer is the uncontrollable growth of cells resulting in masses of lumps and tissue, known as tumours.
Another advantage is that as you get older, your immune system also gets wiser and is able to spot the dangers of colds and viruses at their onset. In order to spot these dangers we produce unique white blood cells which become tailored to each particular cold and flu germ in order to fight them more efficiently. When white blood cells recognise a virus they stick around, forming an ‘immune memory’. The next time these viruses turn up, the white blood cells help to rally a rapid response.
Can ageing be hampered or halted?
In 2016 it was reported that scientists had found a way to replace the ageing cells in our bodies and as a result halt one of the key processes that causes us to grow old. Scientists claimed to have found a way to stop cells from malfunctioning and dying and as a result, stop people from ageing. When they applied their technique to the muscle cells of a fruit fly they found that these cells were restored to a more youthful, energy-producing state. However, this technique is a long way from human trials.
So in the meantime, ensuring you’re looking your best and feeling your best for long as you can demands making wise decisions about your health, lifestyle and wellness. Why not attempt to manage your own telomere health from now on and take a look at our article on the most common signs of ageing and how to combat them.
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Writer: Sophie Kelly