How and Why We Age: What We Can Do About It

This article is part of a series authored by the health professionals of the ASEA Medical Professionals Board and the ASEA Science Council. Dr. Steven Ross Murray is the Director of the Physical Education Program and a Professor of Teaching in the College of Letters and Science at the University of California, Berkeley. He previously was a Professor and former Head of the Department of Kinesiology, and Acting Dean of the School of Business and Professional Studies at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Colorado. Dr. Murray is the author of Wellness for Life and Fitness Walking. 

Ever since the days of the famous 16th-century explorer Ponce de León and his legendary if not mythical search for the Fountain of Youth throughout Florida, we have been interested in turning back the clock of Father Time. The reason is simple: We do not like the effects of aging, especially later in our lives.

Why Do We Age?

Aging is a part of life. We all age. At first, as infants, we grow rapidly from the aging process, going from around 7.5 pounds at birth to nearly tripling our weight in our first year of life. We grow taller, stronger, and generally leaner, too, during our later childhood while heading into puberty, averaging about two inches in height and 5 to 7 pounds a year in weight. As we approach puberty, we really begin to change. Our musculature develops fully because our bodies start producing more hormones. We grow taller, reaching our adult height by our late teens, and our brains continue to develop well into our twenties. We enjoy our bodies and brains for the next two decades, but eventually, we begin to see some declines in performance, first physically, with achy joints and stiff muscles, and later, mentally, with modest forgetfulness and slower mental processing. But why do we see declines in our physical and mental performances with age? Why do we age at all? What can we do about it?

Genetics & Aging

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average American’s lifespan is 78.6 years. The oldest verified living person was France’s Jeanne Calment, at 122 years. Why was Madame Calment able to live 55 percent longer than the average American? Scientists have two main thoughts on aging. The first is that we tend to be born with a genetically determined timeline, depending on our family history and our own health habits. Our genes are in control if you will, and we simply live as long as our genes allow us to live. The second thought is related to our cells, specifically our DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, the hereditary material in human cells, and that they just get worn out

and damaged as we age, and our bodies cannot repair themselves. We get weaker until we cannot function properly, and ultimately we die. I suspect aging is a combination of the two, and research supports both ideas.

Research with worms has shown that through genetic manipulation a 5-fold increase in lifespan can occur. To put that in perspective, in humans that would be a lifespan of 400 to 500 years! However, we are a long way off from manipulating humans for this effect, but the research does support the idea that genes control how long we live. Further, if those genes can manipulate our DNA, it gives credence more to the second thought. We do know that mutated genes can cause humans to age rapidly, and Werner’s Syndrome is an example.

Healthy Habits Make a Difference

Irrespective of our genes controlling our lifespan, our DNA mutates to the point that our bodies cannot rebuild themselves. Luckily, we can take steps to mitigate the negative effects of aging. Lifestyle choices such as diet, physical activity, avoiding tobacco products, and having a positive attitude can help alleviate the deleterious effects of aging. We all age, but our own actions during our lives play a vital role in the process. In the end, it is important to be active, both physically and mentally, stay at a healthy weight, eat a wide variety of foods, especially nuts and other plant-based proteins, avoid excessive alcohol consumption and any contact with tobacco smoke, get good sleep, and be positive. With these steps, perhaps one day you can challenge Madame Calment’s record. After all, Ponce de León never found the Fountain of Youth, but we do know that we can fight off the effects of Father Time with a little work.