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June 26, 2009

Aging "no longer an unsolved problem"

Aging

In a symposium scheduled to take place during the International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics 19th World Congress of Gerontology and Geriatrics held this year from July 5-9 in Paris, four biologists will discuss their understanding of the reasons for the aging process, a phenomenon that has until recently been considered one of life's great mysteries.

The speakers include University of California professor of anatomy Leonard Hayflick, PhD; Robin Holliday, PhD, of the Australian Academy of Science; Steven Austad, PhD, of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, and Thomas Kirkwood, PhD, of Newcastle University in England. The scientists, working independently, have written books on the aging process that were published during the 1990s. Each came to the conclusion that "aging is no longer an unsolved problem," which is the title of the upcoming presentation.

The present understanding of aging emerged from previous insights and aging hypotheses developed over the past few decades. Scientists had been challenged by the fact that there exists a wide variation in mammalian life span yet the changes that accompany aging are similar across species. It is now known that the body's repair and maintenance systems are primary determinants of longevity. “Aging occurs because the complex biological molecules of which we are all composed become dysfunctional over time as the energy necessary to keep them structurally sound diminishes," Dr Hayflick explained. "Thus, our molecules must be repaired or replaced frequently by our own extensive repair systems."

“These repair systems, which are also composed of complex molecules, eventually suffer the same molecular dysfunction. The time when the balance shifts in favor of the accumulation of dysfunctional molecules is determined by natural selection — and leads to the manifestation of age changes that we recognize are characteristic of an old person or animal. It must occur after both reach reproductive maturity, otherwise the species would vanish.”

“These fundamental molecular dysfunctional events lead to an increase in vulnerability to age-associated disease,” he added. “Therefore, the study, and even the resolution of age-associated diseases, will tell us little about the fundamental processes of aging.”

In one of several papers published on the subject, Dr Hayflick described his understanding of aging in a volume of the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences entitled "Biogerontology: Mechanisms and Interventions," published in April, 2007. In his article's concluding remarks, he writes, "There is an almost universal belief by geriatricians and others that the greatest risk factor for all of the leading causes of death is old age. Why then are we not devoting significantly greater resources to understanding more about the greatest risk factor for every age-associated pathology by attempting to answer this fundamental question—'What changes occur in biomolecules that lead to the manifestations of aging at higher orders of complexity and then increase vulnerability to all age-associated pathology?”

Dr Hayflick and other scientists stress the importance of disseminating this information to a wide audience to help advance future research.

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