Above: Image © Sudowoodo, iStockphoto

It’s your birthday! You see an extra candle on the cake and realize that you’re a full year older. You have mixed feelings about getting older. It means gaining more independence, but also getting more responsibilities. It’s only a matter of time before you become an old man or woman! If only the philosopher's stone from Harry Potter was real, and you could stay young forever...

You, me and everyone around us are constantly getting older. Why does this happen? And is there anything humans can do to slow down or even stop the aging process?

Why do people get older?

Scientists aren’t sure exactly why people age. However, they have come up with a few theories. For example:

  • The Wear and Tear Theory suggests that the ongoing use of your body’s cells and tissues wears them out. In other words, the more you use your body, the faster you age. That might make sense when you first hear it. However, if this theory were true, high-performance athletes would age the fastest—and they don’t!
  • The Rate of Living Theory (also called the Hibernation Theory) suggests people with a higher metabolic rate have shorter life spans. Your metabolic rate refers to how hard you physically work your body. In other words, the harder you work your body, the faster you age. Once again, athletes prove this theory wrong. They work their bodies harder than most non-athletes. In fact, some studies have found that individuals that are more physically fit tend to live longer.
  • The Cross-Linking Theory suggests that as you age, proteins in your body link together. This causes a build-up of non-functioning proteins in your body. Scientists have seen this linking in people with Alzheimer’s disease, a neurodegenerative disease that mainly affects the elderly.
  • The Free Radicals Theory suggests that super-reactive molecules called free radicals damage the DNA and proteins in your cells. As this damage builds up, it causes the symptoms of old age. Eating food high in antioxidants (like berries and kale) is a popular way of trying to fight free radicals. However, research into the benefits of free radicals has been inconclusive. Some studies even suggest that consuming too many antioxidants can be harmful.

Did you Know? At birth, most people have 270 bones. However, as you grow, your bones fuse together. So most adults only have 206 bones!

Can you fight aging? Should you?

Scientists are researching some drugs that could extend your lifespan by preventing you from getting certain diseases when you’re old. However, a way to actually slow down the aging process may already be hiding in your body!

A 2015 experiment connected the circulatory (blood) systems of an old mouse and a young mouse. Almost every organ in the old mouse seemed to be rejuvenated (restored to a younger condition). Researchers are now testing whether they can reproduce these results using the blood of younger and older humans.

But even if it turns out there’s no way to fight aging, your attitude could still impact how you age. Studies have found that people who held “negative” aging stereotypes when they were younger are more likely to develop brain characteristics linked to Alzheimer's disease. It’s not clear exactly how or why this happens, but researchers think it’s connected to stress.

Meanwhile, a positive outlook on life affects how you age physically and mentally. Research suggests that people with positive views of their own aging live longer than people with more negative views.

Did you know? Sarcopenia is the loss of muscle mass as you age. One way to prevent it is by exercising frequently, no matter how old you are!

Scientists will continue to debate the causes of aging and come up with new theories. Maybe one day, they’ll will know exactly why people get old. For now, all they know for sure is that aging is very complex.

Rather than trying to turn back the clock, the best thing to do is probably to have a positive attitude about aging. No matter how long you live, you want your life to be happy and fulfilling one. So try to think good thoughts...it might even help you live longer!

Learn More!

About aging:

Telomeres: The key to immortality? (2013)
Divya Santhanam, Curiocity by Let’s Talk Science

Biodemography of human ageing (2010)
J.W. Vaupel, Nature 464

Modern Biological Theories of Aging (2010)
K. Jin, Aging and Disease 1

About medication for extending life:

Anti-ageing pill pushed as bona fide drug (2015)
E.C. Hayden, Nature 522

Rapamycin - the first drug to extend lifespan from yeast to mammals
Max Planck Institute for Biology of Ageing

Chris Chen

Chris obtained a bachelor of science degree with honours and then a masters in Science from the University of Toronto. He just started his PhD degree in Kinesiology at York University and is currently studying mitochondrial function in aging and exercising muscle. In his spare time, he enjoys jogging, swimming and playing on his violin.

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