Adrift in a Sea of Aging Theories and Definitions

How do we age, why do we age — and why don’t we stop obsessing on it already?

Call it an occupational hazard, but when you work at Next Avenue, you tend to think about the aging process — a lot.
To varying degrees, of course, we all do. With myths, misconceptions and misleading data out there, I wonder what good comes of this.
Gerontologists and all sorts of medical and psychological professionals talk about the life extension that’s happening in our middle years — those two vibrant, productive “bonus decades” between 50 and 70 — as the real boon of this time. And that’s cool. But me, I’ve always liked the Vulcan blessing, "Live long and prosper," which just this morning got me wondering about the causes of aging and what we could do about them.
There’s some debate about who was the longest-living human, but according to some sources, it was a Japanese sugarcane farmer named Shirechiyo Izumi, who is said to have made it to 120 (or at least 105), eventually succumbing to pneumonia in 1986. Izumi, who was reportedly fond of his shōchū (an alcoholic beverage) and supposedly took up smoking at age 70, credited his longevity to “the Gods, Buddha and the Sun.” (So much for UV rays that cause premature aging and certain types of cancer, including deadly melanoma.)
But we digress. To talk about aging, first we must define our terms. There are three primary, accepted “types” of aging, each an equally valid measure of life: biological or physiological (how the body changes over time, both inside and out), chronological (i.e., the one we lie about) and psychological (not so much how old we act, but how old or young we feel).

Google searches offer other interesting suggestions for how else one might slice up the aging pie: sociological aging, psychosocial, cognitive, mental, biochemical, genetic, bone, gestational, achievement, etc. When you Google “psychological aging,” you get 14.5 million hits; “physiological aging” offers 8.2 million; and “chronological aging” yields 2.3 million. Depressingly, I was offered 59.6 million hits for “depression aging.” But hearteningly, I found 59.3 million entries for “positive aging.”

Even when you break aging down into these micro-distinctions, there’s still no real consensus on what aging is, what causes it and whether it's "preventable." One website (a “free health information service”) offers an entire section on Aging and breaks this “disease” into the following subtopics: Types, Prognosis[!], Complications, Others Names for It, Causes, Symptoms, and the rather surprising “Can Anyone Else Get Aging?”
Scientific theories abound, of course. They are divided into two main categories: “Programmed” and “Error” theories, both of which sound a little “Brave New Worldy” to my ears.

But it’s all fascinating stuff. Programmed Theories maintain that the aging process is built-in (i.e., part of our biological operating system). These include Programmed Senescence (aging as the result of the sequential switching on and off of certain genes after we mature); Endocrine Theory (hormones control the pace of aging); Immunological Theory (a programmed decline in immune functions leading to increased vulnerability to infectious disease and ultimately aging and death).

“Error Theories” (which could spawn some good punch lines) hold that aging is the consequence of an accumulation of environmental damage to bodily systems over time. They include Wear and Tear (cells and tissues have vital parts that wear out); Rate of Living (the greater one’s “oxygen basal metabolism” rate, the shorter his life span); and Free Radical (oxygen radicals cause damage first to cells and then to organs, which ultimately cease to function).

A few more Error Theories include Crosslinking and Error Catastrophe (involving protein damage to cells and tissues, which slows down bodily processes) and Somatic Mutation (accumulated genetic mutations causing cells to deteriorate and malfunction).

So what’s the takeaway here? I humbly submit: If our best and brightest minds can’t define aging, perhaps we shouldn't waste our precious time and energy worrying about it — especially when we could be sucking every ounce of vibrancy and fun out of those bonus decades that we know we have.

I don’t know about you, but I'm stepping away from the Google searches and going diving.

Suzanne Gerber
By Suzanne Gerber
Suzanne Gerber, former Living & Learning editor for Next Avenue, writes about inspirational topics including health, food, travel, relationships and spirituality.@@gerbersuzanne

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