The solution to aging gracefully: Cellular superpowers
Wrinkles, memory loss, slowing metabolism... these are all signs of aging. But what is actually going on in our bodies as we get older? And is there any way to stop it?
At some point, birthdays become a daunting reminder rather than a joyous celebration. As children, we detest nap time and sneak flashlights under our covers so we can stay up later reading. As adults, our weekends pass too quickly and we long for days that include nothing but naps. The truth is, our bodily functions peak around the time we hit 30 and then aging really begins – we may notice grey hairs, wrinkles around our eyes, difficulty recovering after a big night out or slower metabolism. These changes can be regarded as simple facts of life. But what if there was a way to slow down the aging process?
It all begins with understanding what is actually happening in our bodies as we age. We will start with a more biological perspective, peering into our cells to get a sense of what happens (and doesn’t happen) on a microscopic level. Then we will get into what is happening in the world of science right now to help everyone live healthier for a longer period of time.
How your cells celebrate your birthday
Cells are the starting point for life, and for aging. Wrinkles, general decline in health and poor memory... it all has to do with cellular health. Every single cell has a job to do, but their duties vary. A liver cell breaks down fat and produces energy, a red blood cell brings oxygen to tissue, and a brain cell (a neuron) transmits electrical and chemical signals. Not only do their tasks and responsibilities vary, but the way they regenerate is also different. This is key to aging... or not.
Ultimately, aging happens when cells are no longer able to regenerate or repair in a way that keeps them ahead of damage. Eventually the damage piles up and that’s when aging happens. UV radiation, pollution and free radicals are all sources of damage and can harm the DNA, fats and lipids of the cells.
Nine parts of cellular wear and tear
In 2013, the journal Cell brought together a team of scientists studying aging. They reviewed all the existing material on aging and compiled it for a paper titled “The Hallmarks of Aging.”  The scientists were able to outline nine processes that occur in our bodies as we get old. These “hallmarks” include:
- Telomere shortening:
Telomeres are little caps at the ends of each DNA strand – you can think of them like the plastic tips of shoelaces that keep them from fraying. There is research that shows that the telomeres become shorter every time a cell divides and eventually, when the telomeres are lost, the chromosomes become unstable. This can lead to faulty replications and abnormalities that can cells. Scientists have figured out how to increase levels of telomerase, the enzyme responsible for extending the length of telomeres, in mice. The study suggested that introducing this enzyme can extend a mouse’s lifespan while lowering telomerase levels shortened its lifespan.
- DNA damage:
During replication, errors may begin appearing in the DNA and our bodies mechanisms might not catch these errors. If errors build up over time, they can break down the cell. If scientists could figure out how to help the body repair DNA, they could slow down or put off the aging process.
- Gene expression errors:
As we age, the proteins bound to DNA become less accurate, which makes it possible for genes to be expressed when they shouldn’t be, or the opposite: they are silenced when they should be expressed. This can result in missing or harmful proteins. There is a study that shows how scientists have reversed these errors and improved memory impairment in mice. 
- Ineffective proteins:
Proteins control the functions inside the cell, including its structure and processes. They are recycled as cells are repaired and over time, they lose their effectiveness. When we are young, we can get rid of these old proteins, but this becomes more difficult as we get older. The unusable proteins pile up and become toxic.
- Zombie cells:
When cells are damaged, they can stop dividing and evade death. When this happens, they are called “zombie cells.” Zombie cells can be dangerous because they can infect other cells or they may accumulate. When scientists removed zombie cells in mice, they were able to reverse some signs of aging.
- Malfunctions with the energy production process:
Mitochondria is responsible for turning oxygen and food into energy in cells. When cells age, this function becomes inefficient and can produce an altered form of oxygen that harms DNA.
- Inefficient cell communication:
In any collaboration or relationship, communication is key. The same goes for the cells in our bodies. Cells need to communicate with each other to send signals through the blood and immune system. As we age, they become worse at communicating – some cells don’t even respond, which turns them into zombie cells. They zombie cells get in the way of communications between healthy cells. And if cells can’t communicate, then the immune system isn’t able to clear out pathogens.
- Imbalanced metabolism:
This can occur in older adults not because their diet has changed or become unhealthy, but rather because their cells have lost the ability to detect and process nutrients. Fats and sugars might not get noticed or processed properly, so they do not get digested and instead accumulate in the body.
- Stem cell exhaustion:
To understand why this impacts the aging process, it’s important to understand what a stem cell is. Stem cells have the ability to become different types of cells. They are valuable because they can replenish cells that are damaged or dead. But as we age, they become exhausted and their functions diminish, which leads to a buildup of tissue damage – the stem cells are not able to renew the tissue damage.
A common pattern is wear and tear on the cells – they’re overworked, inefficient, stubborn and exhausted. What they need is a boost. Something that will help them focus and get back on track. The solution lies in scientific research and discovery. Are we close to uncovering the fountain of youth we’ve been searching for? We may be, but more importantly, we’re getting closer to solving the issues of our aging population globally.
Will your grandparents be your coworkers?
The United Nations includes “aging” among its Global Issues topics and on its website and mentions that “population aging is poised to become one of the most significant social transformations of the twenty-first century, with implications for nearly all sectors of society.”
According to the 2019 Revision of the UN’s World Population Prospects, by 2050, 16% of the world’s population will be aged 65 and older, compared to 9% of the population in 2019. In 2018, for the first time ever, people over the age of 65 outnumbered children under the age of five. The number of people over the age of 80 is expected to triple by 2050!
What do all these numbers mean? Well, it could point to a large problem societally because fewer people will work and contribute to economic growth while more people will collect pensions. However, medical advancements have contributed to lower mortality rates... people are younger for longer. Today and in the future, age really is just a number. Sixty-five today isn’t what it was in the 1950s. If people can live a healthier life for longer, that may also mean they can remain in the workforce longer and stay out of assisted living or hospitals for longer.
When sci-fi becomes reality
Curious bright minds around the world have set their sights on anti-aging research, and some of their research has produced results. Anti-aging creams, supplements and infusions are everyday commodities found behind the bathroom mirrors of most people above the age of 30. If only that meant we could live forever... we’re not quite there yet, but what research is showing us is that it is possible to slow down the aging process altogether. We can live healthier for longer because it might be possible to avoid all the health concerns that come with “old age” – Alzheimer’s, poor bone density, diabetes, and more. Imagine being able to play ball or go biking with your great-grandkids. Someday soon, 80 will be the new 20!