Time and the Biology of Aging

Elena Armandola, PhD

In This Article


Aging: A process of gradual and spontaneous change, resulting in maturation through childhood, puberty, and young adulthood, and then decline through middle and late age.

Senescence: The process by which the capacity for cell division, growth, and function is lost over time, ultimately leading to an incompatibility with life; ie, the process of senescence terminates in death.

The quest for immortality seems to be an obsession for humans, dating back to some of the earliest recorded messages of the past. The search for long (if not eternal) life is implicit in Western mythology and in its scientific quests, as in the belief that people lived longer in some past Golden Age.

Examples are the supercentenarians in the book of Genesis (Methuselah supposedly lived to be 969, Jared 962, Noah 950, and Adam 930), the belief that there are remote "pockets" of superlongevity around the world -- pristine places without the stress and pollution of modern urban societies, where the elders retain valued social roles -- and the fountain-of-youth myths, according to which some wondrous substance or procedure would extend life, as happened to young Achilles dipped in the pool of immortality by his mother.

What determines the length of our lives and why do we age? Two questions for which answers have long been sought, but are we any closer to getting them? Has the progress of science and medicine brought us any nearer to being able to determine ourselves when and how (or even if at all) we will "go gentle into that good night[1]?"

What is the significance of aging and death in the order of nature and evolution? Is it moral to strive for immortality? The life span of humans has steadily increased in the past few decades for most; where is the limit? Can we get very old and still lead fulfilling lives by retaining mental and physical fitness?

These and more questions were tackled by a heterogeneous group of speakers and participants in a 2-day meeting of the series Science and Society Conferences recently held at the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) in Heidelberg, Germany, under the title: "Time & Aging -- Mechanisms and Meanings."


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