Aging: A Blessing or a Curse?

Why do we age? How important are genes? We spoke with cell biologist Prof. Maren Engelhardt about the process of aging.

Maren Engelhardt
Maren Engelhardt

The old adage is ‘everyone wants to live longer, but no one wants to become old’. But why do we even have to age at all? Is there anything we can do about it and why are we living longer than the generations before us? Maren Engelhardt, a professor of Anatomy and Cell Biology at the JKU Faculty of Medicine, explains the underlying mechanisms and why she wouldn’t want to live to be 300 years old.

Why are there so many centenarians?
Maren Engelhardt: There is no one answer to this question as there are many factors involved, some we are still not even aware of. Austria is in line with the global trend. The United Nations estimates over 340,000 people around the world are already over 100 years old. This number is expected to increase tenfold by 2050 to more than three million people.

Why are we getting older than our grandparents were?
Maren Engelhardt: There are many factors involved here, too, that support aging but we certainly aren’t aware of all of them. The fact is that the availability of preventative care – ranging from preventive check-ups during childhood to retirement age - has improved significantly over time. Medical advancements are also extensive, allowing us to survive illnesses that our grandparents' generation passed away from. Just think about vaccinations! The demographic change does not stop in Upper Austria; as we are becoming older, we are investing more in the section of society, meaning "aging". Two areas of clinical research at the JKU Faculty of Medicine focus on clinical aging research and health services research and already have a special status in the medical degree program.

Time and again we hear some centenarians say not only have they never exercised, they also ate a fairly unhealthy diet.
Maren Engelhardt: Yes, that is similar to the (in)famous 90-year-old aunt who smoked all her life yet lived to a ripe old age. These are often anecdotes and there is no statistically reliable data behind it. Even if you eat fairly unhealthy foods, eating everything in moderation means there won’t be many issues. And the generation that will be 100 years old today didn’t spend most of the day sitting in the office in front of a computer with little or no exercise. You don't have to take part in competitive sports in order to be physically fit in the long run.

Is there a way to slow the aging process down?
Maren Engelhardt: Well, there are certainly entire branches of industry that have quickly recognized that this is a very lucrative area - just think of all of the anti-aging cosmetics or the endless number of nutritional products and supplements that can supposedly make us all younger.

But seriously, this is difficult to answer as even today, we don’t fully understand what truly takes place during the aging process on a cellular bio and molecular level. You can't really slow the aging process down. Body cells age from the moment they are formed and start working. While aging processes also take place during childhood, renewal processes balance it all out when we are younger but not so much when the body is 90 years old. There are, however, many factors that make us age faster, such as long and frequent unprotected sun exposure or subjecting our bodies to a lot of cell stress through, for example, a stressful diet, inflammatory processes, or using addictive substances.

While there is a general consensus that a healthy diet and sufficient exercise play a key role in slowing the aging process, there are questions as to what a ‘good diet’ even is and in this regard, there are an infinite number of opinions.

How can we not stress about aging?
Maren Engelhardt: By not thinking about it every day and just not stressing as we age. We should just live a lifestyle in which we feel comfortable in our bodies. Exercise helps, along with eating a balanced diet and avoiding addictive substances whenever possible. And don't forget about your brain! People who continue to challenge themselves cognitively by, for example, learning a new language or learning how to play a musical instrument - even at an advanced age – are more likely to remain mentally fit and help the brain from aging. We shouldn’t forget that we just don’t want to turn 100, but also that growing older is a wonderful process that you can experience and control to a certain extent.

How old is old?
Maren Engelhardt: That depends entirely on you and in this regard, I’d like to emphasize the mental component. You are always as old as you feel. I know 30-year-olds who complain about their "age" and then I come across 80-year-olds who you would initially think are no older than 60, both inside and out.

Does having "good genes" play any kind of role?
Maren Engelhardt: Define "good"? There are no good or bad genes, per se. However, there are genes that researchers have classified as gerontogenes because they have been identified as longevity genes (although they have only really been identified in nematodes and fruit flies). Gerontogenes could, for example, encode certain cellular mechanisms that protect against oxidative stress or control DNA repair mechanisms.

However, it is believed an individual inherits his/her lifespan by 10%-30% so genes do not play a key role. A person’s lifestyle and environmental factors impact one’s lifespan more. The best gerontogen will not help if, for example. you spent your childhood growing up next to a chemical factory that disregarded environmental regulations.

How old can a person be or - to put it another way - is 120 the end of the line?
Maren Engelhardt: There is no general answer to this question. We would have to conduct extensive research and even ultimately manipulate genes in order to live longer. I am fairly reluctant to even imagine that scenario as I believe a large part of what makes life so worth living is, after all, knowing it is finite. Personally, the quality of aging is much more important to me than reaching a certain age.