Aging. It starts from the moment our cells first start to divide. There’s a countdown on every component of our biological composition – but our most intense fascination is with aging later in life. In particular, youth-oriented Western culture often encourages the suppression of visible signs of aging in later adulthood. But while there are endless cosmetic treatments available to address the better-known outward expressions of aging, the science of aging is revealing surprising new insights into the hidden processes of aging, especially those at a cellular level.
- Your brain is aging from birth – and the wayit develops early in life mirrors its eventual decline.
You may be familiar with the idea of older seniors becoming more childlike as they age, perhaps showing signs of reduced inhibitions or increased engagement with memories from past stages of their life and, eventually, childhood. Sometimes this is associated with forms of dementia and Alzheimer’s. As it turns out, recently undertaken research indicates the specific way that neural pathways form in your childhood is undone as you age, literally stepping your brain’s development back to earlier stages of life. The specialization and maturation of brain cells simplifies and generalizes after the age of 75 – and this process is distinct to your personal development. A better understanding of this process and further research may provide the keys to moderating mental decline and treating dementia and other degenerative diseases originating in the brain.
- Creative solutions come from unconventional sources.
In the quest to better understand and treat age-associated cognitive decline, specifically Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia, multi-disciplinary teams are forming to combine insight from such diverse specialties as computer science, engineering and urban planning, in partnership with more conventional disciplines such as neuroscience and biology. With in excess of 5 million Americans currently suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease alone, and those numbers expected to triple by the middle of this century, the push to find an effective way to treat and perhaps reverse dementia has huge implications at a social, economic and political level, as well as clear benefits for millions of aging citizens and their loved ones.
- Aging is a growing field of research, academia and professional practice
Dedicated academic and professional fields, institutes and courses of study are developing to with the goal of improving the experience of aging, combating age-related disease and decline well beyond the cosmetic, and increasing life-expectancy and quality of life. With increasingly significant portions of population aging, a positive feedback loop of opportunity and need is driving growth in academic, professional and service sectors. The study of specialist degrees, like a masters in gerontology or senescence, provides in-depth knowledge for those wanting to better understand the aging process.
- Aging is reversible – at least, at a cellular level
Exciting developments from this increased focus on the science of aging include recent trials with rats and human cells showing reversal of age-associated genetic changes in the cells. Starting from a theory that aging can be traced back to changes in gene activity and the cumulative effect of environmental wear on your cells, this research aims to stimulate gene activity. Adult cells have been proven in a lab setting to regain the flexibility of embryonic ones with manipulation of the genetic structure, providing increased life expectancy and improved healing in older mice. While this research is far from being safe for human trials, it is a promising field of scientific inquiry with enormous potential to improve our understanding of what contributes to aging.
- But there’s still a great deal left to learn
While the early trials investigating cellular aging are promising, the question of whether it’s environmental factors wearing on our cells, mitochondrial aging within the cells, or perhaps the shrinking of telomeres – the ends of our chromosomes – associated with age that holds the key to slowing, treating or reversing signs of aging. The science of aging has identified a number of fascinating areas of study, but it has yet to pinpoint a conclusive source of aging. New theories, scientific studies, clinical trials and treatments are developed all the time, providing increasing solutions to those in need of support, as well as ample opportunity for those interested in making a career out of studying or supporting the aging process.
Whether you embrace the wrinkles or fight every gray hair, a better understanding of the science of aging can improve your personal comfort, choices and perspective on your own experience and the options available to loved ones. Further, for those motivated to learn more, it’s an incredibly exciting time to be making a casual or professional study of aging, with new scientific discovery emerging all the time.