Is Aging a Disease?

Michael Darwin
(August 10, 2013)

Much depends upon your personal view of aging. If you think of it as a disease in the same sense as Rickets, The Plague, or a skin rash then you have little choice but to plow ahead with science, i.e., placing mice in cages, feeding them various vitamin supplements, and comparing them to controls. But if this is your point of view, you have arguably LESS of a chance of achieving success than you would if you were to buy a lottery ticket in order to "get rich quick." If you have limited ability/circumstances and you absolutely hope to get rich then buying a lottery ticket is not irrational - it's simply not very likely to achieve your goal compared with alternatives.

When I was a child, I lived in a neighborhood where there were many poor, ignorant, and stupid people, some of whom were all three of these at once. One easy way to separate the ignorant and/or stupid from the merely impoverished, was to observe how people approached the problem of aging in their automobiles. In the 1950's and 1960's, there was a class of products known as "automotive additives," the best known of which was a brand called STP. STP made gas and transmission additives which were supposed to add thousands of miles and years of life to your car -- even if it was an old broken-down car. Ignorant and stupid people bought and used these products. Others, even if poor and desperate, understood that cars grow old and die mostly because of these things: Broken timing belt, fan belt, etc., old (ruptured) coolant hoses, friction wear on piston rings, transmission bands and gears, etc., mishandling of the vehicle such as racing or crashing it, or true accidents.

Such people meticulously changed their oil on a regular, prescribed basis, changed out their belts and hoses at ~ 50,000 miles, didn't race or abuse their cars, and kept them well tuned, well, lubricated, and well aligned. They also understood that around 100,000 miles, their car would likely become uneconomical to continue operating because so many components would be wearing out and failing. Only fools tried to find a magic elixir to pour into their gas tank, oil, or transmission fluid; aging in cars is not a "deficiency disease," nor is it a micro-parasitic invasion, like an infection. Rather, it is due to that darling of libertarians and anarchists everywhere: a lack of regulation (or dysregulation).

Ultimately, no matter how careful you are, friction will get you in the end (entropy) - unless, of course, you can (and are willing to pay for) replacement of all worn components. This is certainly doable. At a lowest, miserable level, you can see that this is so if you go to Cuba today; there are plenty of cars from the 1950's and 1960's still limping along on the road. And, at the highest level, it is only necessary to go to a quality classic-car show to see vehicles from the same era - - or even much earlier - - in mint condition!

So, if you want to understand the real mechanics of aging, you need to look for interventions that increase the maximum lifespan and do so across multiple species. Unfortunately (and as would be expected), there are very few interventions that do this - - and none of them do so dramatically. This strongly suggests that aging is a type of deficiency disease, but not like a vitamin-deficiency disease, such as Pellagra. Rather it's a maintenance or regulation-deficiency disease more akin to the absence of ongoing definitive repair/replacement/maintenance in automobiles.

Of course, living systems - - unlike automobiles - - do "self construct" and do "self maintain" - - at least for short periods of time. Thus, there is the idea that by restoring patterns of gene activation to those seen in youth will be a workable solution. The problem with this is that the only evidence we have for this is Caloric Restriction (CR) - - and CR does not result in REVERSAL of aging or in rejuvenation, but rather in a prolongation of the aging/dying process.

Approaching aging as an "additive (linear) problem," as many gerontologists do, instead of as a "combinatorial (non-linear) problem" will yield mostly negative or even adverse results, but occasionally, some modest, incremental success. At best, what you will achieve is a temporary postponement of the aging process or a minor optimization of it, such as is seen in Nature in the form of human supercentenarians, about 70 living persons worldwide at any given time who are 110 years or older. That may be useful as an existence proof, but practical, youthful immortality, it's not. That approach will require endless studies and yield incremental progress which can only be detected using biostatistical methods.

So, if you seek radical life extension any time soon, stop wasting your time on nutritional/exercise research. You will be old and dead long before the maximum lifespan in humans is extended by so much as a year or two (The Calment Limit = 125 +/- 3 years, named for Madam Jeanne Louise Calment, the French supercentenarian who died in 1997 at age 122 and who holds the Guinness Book of World Records Documented Longevity Record in human history, in spite of what you may read in the book of Genesis in the Old Testament about our alleged antediluvian patriarchs, like Adam, Methuselah (969 yo), or Noah.

That leaves you, broadly, with two alternatives:
(1) Cryonic Suspension; and/or
(2) Rejuvenation/Regenerative Medicine.
The latter involves "big signal outcomes" which carry high risk, and this demands "outside-the-box" actions.

In the meantime, you can fight a rearguard action against specific age-associated deterioration in order to try to buy time using conservative, low risk, but still relatively (potentially) reasonable-yield strategies (so-called Bridge Plans or Biological Escape Velocity). Such strategies, I might add, do NOT include adopting nearly evidence- free interventions that can readily be found on the Internet.