The biological defects that come with age and how to prevent them

I might’ve died fearing the ageing process about as much as everyone else. Unfortunately,  about two drags into my fourth cigarette a friend of mine relayed an anecdote about his dying grandfather—unprompted.

“So it’s his ninety-eighth birthday and we’re watching him try to blow out candles on a cake he probably can’t eat anyway—for like an hour.  Eventually, I get bored and blow it out for him before asking what he wished for. To which he says:  ‘I accidentally peeped the expiration date on the carton of milk in the fridge and it dawned on me that I didn’t know which one of us had more time left.’ 

In an instant, I quit smoking and took up gerascophobia. In defense of the soon-to-be-dead-party-pooper, the older we get the louder minute hands become. We try to dull the racket by route of cosmetics, pop culture, copulation and fairy-tales; all to distract ourselves from the inevitable frog march into nothingness. If we’re honest, every year after 50 extends a catalog of things we can’t do anymore. The list begins innocuously enough with things like “fit into my favorite pair of whatevers”  or comprehend the cultural significance of this or that, but then the whole thing ends tragically nuanced.

We’re all familiar with the odd way time seems to speed up every year after 21? It makes sense that time adopts the illusion of expedience as we run out of milestones but the reasoning behind this phenomenon is actually even less abstract than that. According to a new paper published in the scientific journal European Review, as wrinkles begin to appear, and our postures sag, our neurons grow larger, increasing the amount of time it takes us to process an image. 

“People are often amazed at how much they remember from days that seemed to last forever in their youth,” explained the new study’s author Adrian Bejan, the J.A. Jones Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Duke University in a press release. “It’s not that their experiences were much deeper or more meaningful, it’s just that they were being processed in rapid-fire.”

Interestingly enough, almost all of the psychological conditions that narrate our morph into maggot food are effected by well-documented physiological precursors.

Slow and steady ends the race

Little mutations join forces to pen an aggressive eviction notice apostrophized by medical abnormalities that condemn life on planet earth to be less and less pleasant. This is especially relevant right now because America’s global age is increasing at an exponential rate.

When a society attains economic and agricultural excellence the death rate decreases alongside birthrate, which leads to a larger and older population. James Fries, professor of medicine at Stanford University, indexed the sociological fine-print that punctures this developmental achievement back in 1998. What Fries calls the “compression of morbidity” dictates that denizens of a thriving nation enjoy healthy lives for most of it until a series of health setbacks plague them all at once toward the final stretch. This is often in the form of chronic illness that appears in tandem with natural biological regressions.  As far as the perversion of our ‘mind clocks’ are concerned, organic changes in saccades frequency, body size, and pathway degradation have been studied to be the primary culprits. This is what physics more discreetly refers to as the constructional law of low architecture. Elderly people simply receive fewer images in the same amount of time as younger people, drastically decelerating their integration of information.  The mechanisms that animate this process are fairly identical to a camera’s shutter speed.

“The human mind senses time changing when the perceived images change,” Bejan adds. “The present is different from the past because the mental viewing has changed, not because somebody’s clock rings. Days seemed to last longer in your youth because the young mind receives more images during one day than the same mind in old age.”

Overall somatic decline is ensured by similar physiological defects. New data published by researchers at Yale University revealed that our ability to obtain energy by burning belly fat also reduces as we grow older. This impairment is a direct cost of medical and agricultural preferments that have allowed us to defy our intended life expectancy.

“Several mechanisms in the body are not selected for longevity,” explained the paper’s lead researcher, Vishwa Deep Dixit. “Normally the B cells produce antibodies and defend against infection. But with aging, the increased adipose B cells become dysfunctional, contributing to metabolic disease. This predisposes an animal to diabetes and metabolic dysfunction like inability to burn fat.

Thankfully, successful aging is no longer a consideration beholden to science fiction. Genetics may draft the treatment, but our lifestyle choices govern how gracefully we interpret the consequential beats. Presbycusis for instance (gradual degeneration of the cochlea consequenced by bilateral symmetrical aging) is by all accounts unavoidable. It is the leading cause of hearing loss and affects just about one and two individuals over the age of 75. However, there are cumulative environmental predictors that can worsen the condition and even accelerate its development. Prolonged exposure to headphone frequencies causes the hair cells in the cochlea to bend beyond the point of repair. Uniformly, we all have a reserve capacity of cells, each of which dies without fanfare throughout a given day.

Of course, as we age, this process, which is called apoptosis, picks up momentum. What you might not know though is our state of mind mandates how quickly and violently this program transpires.

“Having a good attitude is very important. We know that stress plays a key role in how we will age. We have these hormones, these stress hormones, that actually play a role in how our cells will die. When we become under stress we have an accelerated loss of cells. So this over a lifetime plays a major role in how functional we will be,” explained Steven Gambert, MD.

Even more consistently than this is the role our diet plays in the pace of our weathering. Diets like the Mediterranean, a regimen rich in vegetables and olive oil, low in meat ingestion, and moderate in alcohol consumption, slackens the agents of aging by checking their pawns, namely chronic maladies associated with old age.  A recent study conducted on 23,349 men and women confirmed what previous literature had intimated in years prior. Medical journalist, Caroline Wilbert reports:

“During the study period, there were 652 deaths among 12,694 participants who had lower Mediterranean diet scores of 0-4 and 423 deaths among the 10,655 participants who had higher scores of at least 5. In general, those with higher scores were more likely to still be alive at the end of the study.”

Similarly, earlier this year a team of European researchers disclosed that routine coffee consumption contributes to DNA integrity and overall longevity. This is earned by the antioxidants residing in dark roasted beans, a compound that helps cells repair themselves more effectively in the wake of the damage done by free radicals. Free radicals, birthed by sunlight, oxygen, and pollution, deteriorate the collagen fibers in the skin. The microbial properties in coffee help staff off these very same germs. Its caffeine acid boosts collagen levels which in turn brakes the aging process.

When it comes to confronting the aspects of aging that we cannot outwit, it’s important to distinguish a superficial fear of growing old, alternatively phrased as literal molecule deterioration, from a  philosophical fear of death; the metaphysical cessation of being. Though I’m not deaf to the terror of either, the attenuating of the former can’t really refute the latter in and of itself. In other words, extending life for its own sake won’t do you any good without some kind of moral equipment to boot. However you go about securing this is valid enough so long as it doesn’t infringe on the fundamental rights of others. Rabelais lived for ambiguity, Plath was vitalized by the unreal and dangerous, Van Gogh was energized by life’s series of small things, Hitchens lived for irony (and died for it too), and Camus made a point not to think about any of it too intensely.

Chronological age is the most literal translation of our time here, our biological age is the most honest projection of how much of it we’ve got left, and our reservoir of purpose judges how successfully we spent it. Ultimately, appealing to your temple and the candles that emblazon it, is a good way to neuter the urge to cry over expired milk, whether the curtain falls when you’re  25 or 98.