How does aging work? So far, in the prologue (section 0) and the section 1 posts, we have discussed a perspective, what aging isn’t (and is), and what we need to explain in any accurate model of aging. In this post, I provide an overview of how the aging process occurs, from cell division to […]
Aging and Disease: 1.4 – Aging, the Overview
- beta amyloid
- Vascular dementia
How does aging work?
So far, in the prologue (section 0) and the section 1 posts, we have discussed a perspective, what aging isn’t (and is), and what we need to explain in any accurate model of aging. In this post, I provide an overview of how the aging process occurs, from cell division to cell disease, followed by a post on the common misconceptions about this model, which will complete section 1. Section 2 is a series of posts that provide a detailed discussion of cell aging, section 3 explores age-related disease, and section 4 maps out the potential clinical interventions in aging and age-related disease. In this post, however, I provide an outline or map of the entire aging process. This will shoehorn much of what we know about cellular aging and age-related disease into a single post, giving you an overview of how aging works.
Aging begins when cells divide. Before moving beyond this, however, we need to ask ourselves why cells divide in the first place. The impetus for cell division is itself a driving force for aging, and the rate and number of cell divisions will control the rate of aging. IF cell division “causes” aging, then what causes cell division? As with any comprehensive examination of causation, we immediately discover that if A causes B, there is always something (often ignored) that must have caused A in turn. In short, causation (and this is equally true of aging) is a cascade of causation that can be pushed back as far as you have to patience to push the question. In the case of cell division, the next upstream “cause” is often environmental and is related to daily living itself. For example, we loose skin cells because we continually slough them off and we therefore need our cells to divide and replace the cells that we lose. As with most tissues, the rate of cell division is strongly modulated by what we do (or what we’re exposed to). If we undergo repeated trauma or environmental stress, then we lose more cells (and consequently have more frequent cell divisions) than we would otherwise. In the knee joint, for example, cell division in the joint surface will be faster in those who undergo repetitive trauma (e.g., basketball players) than in those who engage in low-impact activities (e.g., yoga). In the arteries, cell divisions along the inner arterial surface will be faster in those suffering from hypertension than in those with lower blood pressure (and lower rheological stress). Not all cells divide regularly. While some cells rarely divide in the adult (muscle cells, neurons, etc.), those that do divide regularly – such as skin, endothelial cells in the vascular system, glial cells in the brain, chondrocytes in the joints, osteocytes in the bone, etc. – will vary their rate of division in response to trauma, toxic insults, malnutrition, infections, inflammation, and a host of other largely environmental factors. Putting it simply, in any particular tissue you look at, the rate of cellular aging depends on what you do to that tissue and those cells. Repeated sunburns induce more rapid skin aging, hypertension induces more rapid arterial aging, close head injuries induce more rapid brain aging, and joint impacts induce more rapid joint aging. In all of these cases, the clinical outcome is the acceleration of tissue-specific age-related disease. So while we might accurately say that aging begins when cells divide, we might equally go up one level and say that aging begins in whatever prompts cell division. Any procees that accelerates cell loss, accelerated cell division, and thus accelerates aging and age-related disease.
Cell division has limits (as Len Haylfick pointed out in the 1960’s) and tee limits on cell division are, in turn, determined by telomere loss (as Cal Harley and his colleagues pointed out in the 1990’s). Telomeres, the last several thousand base pairs at the end of nuclear chromosomes (as opposed to mitochondrial chromosomes), act as a clock, setting the pace and the limits of cell division. In fact, they determine cell aging. Telomeres are longer in young cells and shorter in old cells. Of course, it’s never quite that simple. Some cells (such as germ cells) actively replace lost telomere length regardless of chronological age, while others (such as neurons and muscle cells) divide rarely and never shorten their telomeres as the adult tissues age. Most of your body’s cells, those that routinely divide, show continued cell division over the decades of your adult life and show a correlated shortening of their telomeres. Note (as we will in the next blog post) that it is not the absolute telomere length that is the operative variable, but the relative telomere loss that determines cell aging. Nor, in many ways, does even the relative telomere length matter, were it not for what telomeres control “downstream”: gene expression.
As telomeres shorten, they have a subtle, but pervasive effect upon gene expression throughout the chromosomes and hence upon cell function. In general, we can accurately simplify most of this process as a “turning down” of gene expression. The process is not all-or-nothing, but is a step-by-step, continuum. Gene expression changes gradually, slowly, and by percent. The change is analogous to adjustments in an “volume control” rather the use of an on/off switch. Where once the expression of a particular gene resulted in a vast number of proteins in a given time interval, we now see 99% of that amount are now produced in that time interval. The difference may be one percent, it may be less, but this small deceleration in the rate of gene expression becomes more significant as the telomere shortens over time. Whereas the young cell might produce (and degrade) a pool of proteins using a high rate of molecular “recycling”, this recycling rate slows with continued cell division and telomere shortening, until older cells have a dramatically slower rate of molecular recycling. While you might suspect that a slightly slower rate of turnover wouldn’t make much difference, this is actually the single key concept in aging and age-related disease, both at the cellular and the tissue levels. We might, with accuracy and validity, say that aging is not caused by telomere loss, but that aging is caused by changes in gene expression and, even more accurately, that aging is caused by the slowing of molecular turnover.
To understand molecular turnover is to understand aging. As we will see later in this series (including a mathematical treatment with examples), the predominant effect of slower molecular turnover is to increase the percentage of denatured or ineffective molecules. Examples would include oxidized, cross-linked, or otherwise disordered molecules due to free radicals, spontaneous thermal isomerization, or other disruptive, entropic processes. The cell’s response to such molecular disruption is not to repair damaged molecules, but to replace such molecules with new ones. This replacement process, molecular turnover, is continual and occurs regardless of whether the molecules are damaged or not. The sole exception to the use of replacement rather than repair is that of DNA, which is continual being repaired. But even the enzymes responsible for DNA repair are themselves being continually replaced and not repaired. There are no stable molecular pools, intracellular or extracellular: all molecular pools are in dynamic equilibrium, undergoing continual turnover, albeit at varying and different rates. Some molecules are replaced rapidly (such as the aerobic enzymes within the mitochondria), others more slowly (such as collagen in the skin), but all molecular pools are in a condition of dynamic equilibrium. More importantly, if we are to understand aging, the rate of molecular turnover slows in every case as cells senesce and the result is a rise in the proportion of damage molecules. To use one example, beta amyloid microaggregates in the brain (in Alzheimer’s disease) occur not simply result because damage accrues over time (entropy). Amyloid microaggregates begin to form when the rate of glial cell turnover of beta amyloid molecules (the binding, internalization, degradation, and replacement of these molecules) becomes slower over time and is no longer keeping pace with the rate of molecular damage (maintenance versus entropy). The result is that beta amyloid molecular damage occurs faster than molecular turnover, and the the histological consequence is the advent of beta amyloid plaques. The same principle – the slowing of molecular turnover with cell aging – applies to DNA repair and the result in an exponential rise in cancer, as we will see in later sections. This general problem of slower molecular turnover applies equally within aging skin, where wrinkles and other facets of skin aging are not the result of entropy, but result from the failure of maintenance (e.g., turnover of collagen and elastin) to keep up with entropy. The incremental and gradual slowing of molecular turnover or molecular recycling is the single most central concept in aging. Aging isn’t caused by damage, but by the failure of maintenance to keep up with that damage. Aging results from insufficient molecular turnover.
Cell and Tissue Dysfunction
The slower molecular turnover and it’s outcome – an increase in dysfunctional molecules – results in a failure within and between cells. Within the cell, we see slower DNA repair, leakier mitocondrial membranes, an increase in the ratio of ROS/ATP production (creating more free radicals and less energy), decreasinly effective free radical scavengers, and a general decrease in the rate of replacement of those molecules that are damage, whether by free radicals or otherwise. For the cell itself, the outcome is a gradual loss of function and an increase in unrepaired DNA. With respect to free radicals, for example, it’s not that free radical damage causes aging, but that cellular aging causes free radical damage. As our cells age (and molecular turnover slows), our mitochondria produce more free radicals (since the aerobic enzyemes aren’t as frequently replace), the mitochondrial membranes leak more free radicals (since the lipid molecules in the mitochondrial aren’t as frequently replaced), free radicals are more common in the cytoplasm (since free radical scavenger molecules are as frequently replaced), and consequent damage becomes more common (since damaged molecules aren’t as frequently replaced). Free radicals do not cause aging: they are merely an important by-product of the aging process. As in cells, so in tissues: just as molecular turnover slows and results in cellular dysfunction, so do do we see dysfunction at higher levels: tissue, structural anatomy, and organ systems. Slowing of molecular turnover expresses itself in dysfunctional cells, an increase in carcinogenesis, and ultimately in clinical disease.
At the clinical level, the changes in cell and tissue function result in disease and other age-related changes. Wrinkles, for example, may not be a disease, but they result from exactly the same cellular processes outlined above. In each case, however, we see age-related changes or age-related diseases are the result of underlying “upstream” processes that follow a cascade of pathology from cell division, to telomere shortening, to epigenetic changes, to a slowing of molecular turnover, to growing cellular dysfunction. As glial cells “slow down” (in their handling of amyloid, but also in regard to mitochondrial efficiency and a host of other subtle dysfunctions), the result is Alzheimer’s and the other human dementias. As vascular endothelial cells senesce, the result is coronary artery disease, as well as heart attacks, strokes, aneursyms, peripheral vascular disease, and a dozen other age-related diseases and syndromes. As chondrocytes senesce, the result is ostoarthritis. As osteocytes senesce, the result is osteopororis. Nor are these the only manifestations. We see cell senescence in renal podocytes, in dermal and epidermal cells of the skin, in fibroblasts within the lung, and in essentially every tissue that manifests age-related changes. Age related disease and age-related changes are, at the clinical level, the predictable and ultimate outcomes of cellular aging.
The above model is accurate, consistent, and predictively valid, yet there have been a number of crucial misconceptions that have remained common in the literature, making it difficult for many people to grasp the model correctly. Next time, we will explore these errors before moving into the details of aging and disease.