What IS aging? An explanation of aging must account for all cells, all organisms, and – if we are candid – all of biology and isn’t merely entropy. Prior posts defined our boundaries: what we must include – and exclude. We know that we cannot simply point to entropy, wash our hands of any further […]
Aging and Disease: 1.3 – Aging, What it IS
What IS aging?
An explanation of aging must account for all cells, all organisms, and – if we are candid – all of biology and isn’t merely entropy. Prior posts defined our boundaries: what we must include – and exclude. We know that we cannot simply point to entropy, wash our hands of any further discussion, and walk away with our eyes closed. Likewise, an honest explanation can’t simply consider humans and a few common mammals but ignore the entire gamut of Earth’s biology.
So, what IS aging? As a start, we might acknowledge that life has been on Earth for more than four billion years and during that entire time, life has resisted entropy. This serves as an excellent starting point: life might be defined as the ability to maintain itself in the face of entropy. In that case, we might rough out our initial definition: aging is the gradual failure of maintenance in the face of entropy.
We miss the point, however, unless we realize that aging is an active, dynamic process. Aging is not simply a matter of a failure of maintenance in the passive sense. To use an analogy, if entropy were an escalator carrying us downwards, then it is not the only process involved. It is countered by cell maintenance, which is precisely like walking upwards on the same escalator (see Figure 1.3a). Young cells are entirely capable, as are germ cells and many other cells, of indefinitely maintaining their position at the top of the escalator. Entropy and maintenance are equally balanced. Older cells, however, have a subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) imbalance, in which maintenance is less than entropy.
As aging occurs, the problem is not that the escalator (entropy) carries us downwards, but that we are no longer walking upwards (maintenance) at the same rate as the escalator. To view aging as the descending escalator alone is to miss the essential point of biology: life remains on this planet because cells and organisms “walk upwards” and maintain themselves indefinitely in the face of being “carried downwards” by entropy. The process is a dynamic balancing act. To explain aging, it is not enough to cite the escalator, but requires that we explain why maintenance fails, and then only in certain cells and at certain times, while remaining functional in other cells and at other times. Aging is far from universal. A valid explanation of aging must account for why aging occurs in some cases yet does not occur in other cases.
Aging is not the escalator but is a combination of two forces: entropy carrying cells into dysfunction and maintenance ensuring that cells remain functional. Aging occurs only when maintenance is down-regulated. If maintenance is not down-regulated, then the cells and the organism do not age. Aging cells, such as many somatic cells, age because they down-regulate maintenance. “Immortal” cells, such as germ cells, do no age because they do not down-regulate maintenance.
We might try an analogy to see where it takes us, comparing biological aging to “aging” in a car. We could say that aging in a car is not simply what happens as the car undergoes weathering and degradation over time. Rather, car aging would be what happens if we fail to maintain the car on a regular and detailed basis. There are exceptional antique cars that have been in active use longer than most human lifetimes, but they are in excellent shape not because they had better parts (i.e., have the right genes) or were made by a better manufacturer (i.e., are part of the right species), but because they were maintained scrupulously and carefully on an almost daily basis by generations of owners. Such cars are oiled, painted, repaired, realigned, and cared for on an almost daily basis, compared to most cars that are lucky to be cared for annually. The critical difference is not the chronological age of the car nor the amount of wear-and-tear, but the frequency and excellence of their maintenance. Given frequent and excellent maintenance, sufficient to keep up with entropy, a car can last indefinitely, while with sloppy and merely annual maintenance, cars typically last only a few years before “aging” takes them off the road.
In a sense, organisms are no different: the degree of aging is not just a matter of time or entropy, but of the quality and frequency of maintenance. Likewise, aging is not purely a matter of which genes or what species pertain to that organism. Rather, aging is a matter of the rate of repair and recycling within cells, that is, maintenance in the face of entropy.
It’s not the genes, it’s the gene expression.
Let’s use another example, that of water recycling. Every molecule of water that you ingest has been recycled endlessly, but the speed and efficiency of that recycling determines the quantity and quality of the water you drink. Imagine that we plan a trip to Mars. If the average astronaut needs 2 liters per day and 4 astronauts are on a 2.5-year roundtrip to Mars, we might calculate that we need to bring 7 tons of water. But that (incorrectly) assumes no recycling. We can get by on a lot less water, depending on how we recycle. The amount we need to bring with us depends not only on the amount the astronauts use daily, but on the quality and rate of recycling (from urine, for example). The faster the recycling, the less water we need to carry along. The better the quality of our recycling, the longer we can stay healthy.
In a “young” and efficient cell, we recycle molecular pools rapidly and effectively. In an old cell, however, the rate and effectiveness of the recycling decreases. The analogy for our Mars trip would be slower recycling, along with an increasing percent of contaminants that are not being removed in our water recycling unit. The outcome, whether in aging cells or a mission to Mars, is gradually increasing dysfunction. Aging cells no longer function normally (as when they were young cells) and our sickening astronauts no longer function normally either (as when they started out on Earth).
As another example, you oversee a huge office building with multiple daily customers and hundreds of employees. Every night, your cleaning crew comes through, mopping the solid floors, vacuuming the carpets, cleaning the windows, and (when necessary) repainting the walls. Maintenance is frequent and excellent; as a result, the building always looks new (i.e., young). Now let’s radically cut back on your maintenance budget. Instead of daily maintenance, the carpets are vacuumed once every two weeks, the floors are mopped once a month, the windows are cleaned once a year, and repainting occurs once a decade. The resulting problem is not due to the amount of dirt (the entropy), nor the quality of the vacuum, the mop, the washer fluids, or the paint (think of these as the quality of your genes). The problem isn’t the dirt nor is it the cleaning crew, but the rate of maintenance. The outcome is that your building looks dirty and is increasingly incapable of attracting clients or customers – or for that matter, incapable of retaining employees. This parallels the changes in aging cells: the genes (the cleaning products) are excellent and the quality of repair (the cleaning staff) are both excellent, but the frequency of maintenance is too low to maintain the quality of the building. In aging cells, molecular turnover is too slow to keep up with entropic change.
This same analogy could be applied to home repairs, garden weeding, or professional education. The problem is not entropy, but our ability to resist entropy and maintain function. Aging occurs because cell maintenance becomes slower. The quality of gene expression is fine, but molecular turnover (see figure 1.3b) – the “recycling rate” – declines. This effect is subtle but pervasive and the result is increasing dysfunction. This concept – the failure of maintenance to keep up with entropy — is not only central to aging but can account for all of aging and in all organisms, whether at the genetic level, the cellular level, the tissue level, or the clinical outcome – age-related disease.
Aging is a dynamic process, in which entropy begins to gain as maintenance processes become gradually down-regulated.
In subsequent posts, we will explore the detailed mathematics of this change, reviewing the formula and the primary variables, letting us see the remarkable results that occur in terms of denatured molecules and cellular dysfunction. For now, however, let’s look at a few specific clinical examples in human aging, all of which we’ll return to in later posts, when we consider age-related diseases in great detail.
In human skin, between cells, we see changes in collagen and elastin (among dozens of other proteins) as we age. Many people mistakenly assume that these changes are a simple, static accumulation of damage over a lifetime, but these changes are anything but static. These molecules are in dynamic equilibrium, in which the molecules (and their complex structures) are constantly being produced (anabolism) and broken down (catabolism). The overall rate of recycling (the overall metabolism) is high in young skin, with the result that at any given time, most molecules are undamaged and functional (and relatively new). This rate slows with aging, however, with the result that molecules remain longer before being “recycled” and the percentage of damaged and dysfunctional molecules rises, slowly but inexorably. In old skin, molecules “sit around” too long before being recycled. Old skin isn’t old because of damage, but because the rate of maintenance becomes slower and slower. Naïve cosmetic attempts to “replace” skin collagen, elastin, moisture, or other molecules fail because they are transient interventions. By analogy, these cosmetic interventions would be like – in the case of our old, dirty office building – suggesting that we will send in one person, one night, to clean one window pane. Even if you notice a small, transient improvement, the problem isn’t resolved by bringing in one person for a single visit, it requires that we resume having the entire cleaning crew come in every night. Intervening in skin aging is not a matter of providing a few molecules, but of increasing the rate of turnover of all the molecules.
The same problem occurs in aging bones. The problem that lies at the heart of osteoporosis is not “low calcium”, but the rate at which we turnover our bony matrix. Looking solely at calcium as one example, osteoporosis not a static problem (add calcium), but a dynamic problem (increase the rate of calcium turnover). Moving our attention from minerals to cells, young bone is constantly being taken apart (by osteoclasts) and rebuilt (by osteoblasts). The result is continual remodeling (recycling) and repair. Bone turnover is a continual process that slows with age. Young fractures heal quickly and thoroughly. In old bone, however, the rate of remodeling falls steadily, and rebuilding falls slightly behind. The result is that we have decreased matrix, decreased mineralization, decreased bone mass, and an increasing risk of fractures. The fundamental problem underlying osteoporosis is not “a loss of bone mineral density”, but an inability to maintain bony replacement. It’s not the calcium or the phosphorous, but the osteocytes themselves. Loss of bone mineralization is a symptom, not the cause of osteoporosis.
A more tragic and more fatal example is Alzheimer’s disease. Until relatively recently, the leading pathological target was beta amyloid, a molecule which (like tau proteins and other candidates) shows increasing damage and denaturation (plaques in the case of amyloid) in older patients, especially in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Again, however, amyloid is not a static molecule that is produced, sits around, and slowly denatures over a lifetime. Amyloid is continually produced and continually broken down, but the rate of recycling falls as we age. The result is that the percentage of damaged amyloid (plaque) rises with age, solely because the rate of turnover is slowing down. As we will see, the cells that bind, internalize, and breakdown this molecule become slower as we age. To address Alzheimer’s, we don’t need to remove amyloid or prevent its production, we need to increase the rate of turnover. Beta amyloid plaques are a symptom, not the cause of Alzheimer’s disease.
Wherever we look — an aging cell, an aging tissue, or an aging organism – we see that aging is not a static, linear loss of function due to entropy. Rather, aging is a dynamic process in which the rate of recycling – whether of intracellular enzymes, extracellular proteins, aging cells, or aging tissues – becomes slower as cells senesce. Aging is a programmed failure of maintenance at all biological levels. This is equally true of DNA repair, mitochondrial function, lipid membranes, proteins, and everything else we can measure in an aging system.
We’ve had a glimpse at the core of aging. Let’s explore an overview of how changes in gene expression translate into cell dysfunction, tissue failure, clinical disease, and aging itself.
Next time: Aging, the Overview