Why Aging is a Disease, not an Inevitability

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ElderlyWomenThere are three distinct ways to measure someone’s age: chronological age, as dictated by the calendar; biological age, as evidenced by your physical appearance and health; and psychological age, as determined by how old you feel.

So when I turned the big 3-0, I kept telling everyone that while I may be chronologically 30 years old, biologically and psychologically, I was still 21. You see, I had just read “Ageless Body, Timeless Mind” by Dr. Deepak Chopra, who discussed the “three ages of man” in his book. According to Dr. Chopra, aging was a choice. I had control over two of the three measures of age, meditation being the solution to reversing biology. Sold!!! I continued to believe this, and every year thereafter celebrated the anniversary of my 21st birthday, laughing at the calendar and celebrating like a debutante.

And then my husband decided to start a family. I had just turned 37 and (hoping that meditation had worked its wonders) still held the idea that while chronologically 37, I was biologically much younger. There was no doubt that I was psychologically juvenile, but boy, was I wrong about my body. After two failed attempts at IVF (invitro fertilization) and learning the truth about age and fertility, I wished I hadn’t been so cocky and delusional in my early thirties. Darned Deepak!

MethuselahLuckily, scientists are making strides at ameliorating the symptoms and even the causes of aging, approaching it as a disease, rather than an inevitability. This past summer, a groundbreaking new conference entitled “Aging: the Disease, the Cure, and the Implications” was held at UCLA. Hosted by the Methuselah Foundation, the conference discussed how stem cell and regenerative medicine research could lead to the discovery and development of antidotes to aging, extending healthy human life by decades.

The Methuselah Foundation is so named for the biblical character who lived to be 969 years old. The non-profit organization, whose ultimate goal is “the defeat of age-related disease and the indefinite extension of the healthy human lifespan,” funds two projects: mPrize and SENS. The mPrize, or the Methuselah Mouse Prize, refer to the multi-million dollar prize awarded to the scientific research team who develops the first anti-aging cure for mice, since the foundation believes that this is the necessary precursor to treating the aging process in humans.

SENS stands for Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence¸ a detailed plan for curing human aging by developing solutions for the “direct repair, replacement, or rendering harmless of damaged [cell] structures” that result from “a series of unintended biochemical side-effects of normal metabolism.” Lofty goals? Perhaps. Attainable? Hopefully so.

In November 2004, more than seven million Californians demonstrated the same hope of controlling the biology of aging. Proposition 71 was passed and the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine was established, with $3 billion allocated towards stem cell and regenerative medicine research through 2014.

Red-LipstickFor now, human beings have found temporary solutions for masking the symptoms of aging – crow’s feet, laugh lines, sagging breasts, bulging bellies, thinning lips. Cosmetic surgery is huge business. From teeth whitening and tummy tucks, to Botox and breast augmentation, we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to maintain our youthful appearance. Take Janice Dickinson, the self-proclaimed “first supermodel,” who at 58 still maintains much of her youthful allure, thanks to over $100,000 worth of plastic surgery, collagen and Botox injections.

And with the tsunami of aging baby-boomers, the business of beauty has experienced increased demand and gained widespread acceptance among the masses, with credit due to people like Dr. Vicki Belo of the Belo Medical Group, responsible for keeping Philippine pop royalty youthful. No longer is cosmetic enhancement the hush-hush procedure of the past. Now, celebrities and regular people alike flaunt the work they’ve had done. As I’ve recently overheard, “Kung mayaman ka, pero pangit ka pa rin, kasalanan mo na ‘yon. (If you have the money and you’re still ugly, that’s your fault).”

But cosmetic surgery is akin to repainting and re-upholstering your Model T… the engine is still old, deteriorating, and perhaps defective. Eventually, you’ll just end up with a handsome-looking jalopy in your garage. Unless you replace the engine.

And in this regard, too, scientists are making strides.  Human beings are living longer, healthier, more productive lives thanks to advances in organ replacement, disease research, and gene therapy.

Attending my grandmother-in-law’s 90th birthday party in Seattle recently made me both optimistic and sad: optimistic, because many of her childhood and college friends were still there to celebrate with her. Sad, because while their minds are still agile and lucid, their bodies have nonetheless suffered the outward effects of time.

Now I don’t have a problem with aging, per se. It’s the slow deterioration that I don’t like, and certainly don’t look forward to. With the help of the Methuselah Foundation, perhaps we can all continue to celebrate the anniversary of our respective 21st birthdays in grand style, for years to come.

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