Still mysterious, aging may prove malleable

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Sandy Schaffer

Aging happens to each of us, everywhere, all the time. It is so ever-present and slow that we tend to take little notice of it. Until we do. Those small losses in function and health eventually accumulate into life-changers.

Despite its constancy in our lives, aging remains mysterious on a fundamental level. Scientists still struggle to fully explain its root causes and its myriad effects. Even as discoveries pile up (SN: 12/26/15, p. 20), a clear picture has yet to emerge. Debates continue about whether individual life spans and the problems associated with aging are programmed into our bodies, like ticking time bombs we carry from birth. Others see the process as a buildup of tiny failures, a chaotic and runaway deterioration that steals vim and vigor, if not health and life itself. There is no unified theory of aging. That means that there is no one way to stop it. As longtime aging researcher Caleb Finch put it in an interview with Science News: Aging is still a black box.

The issue is an urgent one. The globe’s population has never been older. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 An Aging World report, by 2020 the number of people 65 and older worldwide will outnumber children 5 and under for the first time in history. Seniors will make up 22.1 percent of the U.S. population in 2050, and nearly 17 percent globally (a whopping 1.6 billion people), the demographers predict. Worldwide, the 80-and-above crowd will grow from 126 million to 447 million. It’s a population sea change that will have ripple effects on culture, economics, medicine and society.

Scientists working at the frontiers of the field do agree that there are probably many ways to slow aging, Tina Hesman Saey reports in this special issue. Saey sums up current thinking on the actors of aging, as well as a number of intriguing approaches that might well tame aging’s effects. The goal, most agree, is not to find a fountain of youth but the keys to prolonging health.

It turns out that healthy aging in people does occur naturally. It is, however, in the words of Ali Torkamani, “an extremely rare phenotype.” Torkamani leads a genetic study of people 80 and older who are living free of chronic disease, described by Saey in her story. He and his team failed to find a single set of genes that protect these “wellderly.” Instead, the people studied carry a plethora of different genetic variants. They do share a lower risk of heart disease and Alzheimer’s. And, he says, the data hint that gene variants linked to key cognitive areas may be at play, leading him to ask: “Is cognitive health just one of the components of healthy aging? Or is there something about having a healthy brain that protects against other signs of aging?”

Exactly what happens in the brain as we age is a question Laura Sanders takes up in “The mature mind.” An intriguing idea is that the brain begins to lose the specialization that makes it so efficient in its prime, she reports. Further afield, Susan Milius considers a hydra and a weed, examining what these outliers of aging can tell us about how aging evolved and how flexible it truly is. Her answer: Very. The sheer diversity in life cycles and declines gives credence to arguments that while death may come for all of us, a robust old age could well be in the cards for more of us.

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