The question ‘Why do we Age?’ is one of those dove-tailed questions that arises from the unfortunate mixture of speculation and horror. From a philosophical perspective, and a very brief one at that, the acknowledgment of death as ‘the only certainty’ arguably formed the basis of culture, religion, and even human consciousness. If we are ever to delay the aging process without cryo-preserving the fleshy tombs we walk this earth in, and invent an unlikely biological utopia dominated by immortal human life we must understand the proximal causes of aging. Implicitly a mutual process between men and women, the psychosocial consequences of aging are far more gendered than biologically relevant.
In Western society, increasingly impossible ideals of youthful beauty place more pressure on the body as a vehicle for expression. There appears to be huge psychosocial consequences of the physical signs of aging as pigmentations of a process of diminishing self-continuity – a process much more demonized when compared to the reverence of the aged form in non-western society. We can begin to ask the question, if aging is an inevitable process rigidly linked to the state of being alive, why do we oppose it so much, and why do our beauty ideals sit in direct opposition to it?
Implicitly a mutual process between men and women, the psychosocial consequences of aging are far more gendered than biologically relevant.
The media is a huge driving force in the reification of these beauty ideals, arguably misrepresenting the aging female form as a gradual loss of femininity, whilst offering glimmers of hope in the hard-sale of cosmetics that aim to fulfill seemingly unattainable goals. Commerce capitalizes on the constant quest for youth, and we’re all in this together. 1.7 million British people opted to superficially escape the inevitability of aging via cosmetic surgery in 2015, a 33 percent increase from the previous year, 91 percent of which were women.
If the ostensible purpose of cosmetic surgery is to increase the psychological and psychosocial wellbeing of the subject, then society places a higher pressure on women to meet the demands of youthful beauty ideals. That is to say that the consequences of falling short of the beauty standards of aging are less severe for men, a greatly pathological representation of gender imbalances, in a biologically mutual scenario.
The consequences of not meeting the standards of the beauty ideals of ageing are less severe for men, a greatly pathological representation of gender imbalances, in the biologically mutual scenario of age-related decline.
There is a surge of pressure on modern medicine to combat the aging process, but to do this we have to understand ‘why we age’.
At the individual level, aging affects every tissue in the human body. If you live long enough, you will develop cataract, atherosclerosis, Cancer. If it just affected one tissue, we’d have cracked it by now. Hence we must be dealing with something broader, some eclipsing consequence of the very process of ‘living’.
Understanding the reasons why we age from an evolutionary perspective is paramount – it will inform the way we research strategies for prevention, regardless of which side of society’s moral lifespan quandary you sit. The only way to delay or reverse the onset of age-related decline is to understand its proximal causes.
We’ve identified causative factors in cellular damage accumulation, telomere shortening, oxidation, and stress that cause cellular aging, but the question that synthesizes these theories is broader – more like ‘Why havn’t we achieved Immortality?’
Is Immortality the pinnacle for evolution? A question almost as difficult to swallow as the reality that the most complex process on earth has so far been unable to transcend the internal limitations of lifespan. Aging therefore simply has to be a detrimental side effect of a marginal benefit to the organism in earlier life.
Aging simply has to be a detrimental side effect of a marginal benefit to the organism in earlier life.
At a glance, aging appears to run contrary to the most fundamental idea of Darwinism – that natural selection edges towards individual benefits to the organism, and not to the whole species it belongs to. We could explain aging as a process that slowly clears the population of old genes, ready for the transmittance of more favorable traits down generations. This is a form of altruism. For the selfish gene, and for the sake of genetic theory in general this has to be biological balderdash.
In line with Darwinism, the most important factor of the organism’s lifespan, and a likely reason why lifespan varies so greatly throughout life is the time point at which the organism becomes capable of reproduction.
To resolve Darwin’s aging paradox, a Selection theory of aging proposes that marginal developmental benefits that increase the likelihood of the organism reproducing can outweigh the detrimental decline of those traits. That is the most difficult way to say it. It makes sense if we simplify…if more energy is invested into achieving the reproductive state of the organism such that the chances of reproduction are increased, than less energy is available later in life to reverse and repair accumulated damage that occurs across the life span. Hypothetically this would ‘cause’ the process of aging, which fits with the notion of Darwinism. Throughout evolution, animals that reached a more fertile reproductive state by virtue of developmentally beneficial genes were able to pass those genes through selection, despite inherited traits carrying the consequence of ag-related decline.
From the perspective of Natural Selection, aging theory proposes that marginal developmental benefits that increase the likelihood of the organism reproducing can outweigh the detrimental decline of those traits.
In this historical context, one interesting genetic hangover is that calorie restriction is the only process that has shown to increase life span throughout the animal kingdom. This fits with the current aging theory. Throughout periods of famine in human history, increasing the lifespan effectively increases the period in which the animal is reproductively active, compensating for restricted access to nutrients. Nutrient sensing pathways respond to the environment by triggering cell division during times of nutrient availability, and restricting cell division during nutrient scarcity. The number of cell divisions is limited, and once this limit is reached cells begin ‘senescence’, the cellular cause of aging.
In the modern day we’re living longer because the pressures to reach the reproductive period are unimaginably reduced, relative to primitive society. The improving conditions of human life reduce the weight of damage accumulation, with modern medicine picking up the pieces of damage repair. However, we’re haunted by a genetic hangover from the evolutionary history of life that causes a reduced ability to repair the damages that occur over the course of life. Yet if by definition, aging is a consequence of the very essence of living, why do our beauty ideals invent a taboo where femininity suffers the most?