HEALTH: Why are we getting old?

During a beauty contest held in a historic hotel in Manila a couple of years back, the host asked one of the contenders: “How do you see yourself 10 years from now?”  With confidence, she replied, “I am now 18, plus 10.  I will be 28!”

Her answer may be funny but there’s more truth to it.  Every day, we grow older.  Old age consists of ages nearing the average life span of human beings, and thus the end of the human life cycle.

Euphemisms and terms for older people include advanced adult, elderly, and senior citizen and pensioner. Older people have limited regenerative abilities and are more prone to disease, syndromes, and sickness than other adults.

Life, they say, begins at forty.  And at this time, people tend not to discuss age. As someone puts it, “Old age is a mental attitude as well as a physical problem. People shudder when you discuss old age.” Oliver Wendell Holmes points out: “A person is always startled when he hears himself seriously called an old man for the first time.”

“Many people think old age is a disease, something to be thwarted if possible,” said T.C. Myers.   “But someone has said that if any period is a disease, it is youth. Age is recovering from it.”

Individuals deal with aging in different ways.  Some adjust to it; they plan for the “golden years,” and accept their decreasing vitality as inevitable.  Others, however, deny old age.  This is particularly true among women.  Hollywood comedian Lucille Ball quipped: “The secret of staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly, and lie about your age.”

There are those who look for “the fountain of youth.”  They try to alter their appearance with make-up, hair coloring or plastic surgery.  This must be the reason why beauty salons and clinics are sprouting all over the country.

Until now, the quest for the fountain of youth continues.  According to legends, the spring reputedly restores the youth of anyone who drinks of its waters.  Florida in the United States is said to be its location, and stories of the fountain are some of the most persistent myths associated with the state.

In fact, there is a longstanding myth that Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon was searching for the fountain of youth when he travelled to present-day Florida in 1513.   (He reportedly found it in the mysterious Wakulla Springs, a favorite setting of Hollywood movies including the Tarzan series.)

And who has not heard of Peter Pan, a fictional character created by Scottish novelist and playwright, J.M. Barrie.  This mischievous little boy refuses to grow up and thus he remains as such on the small island of Neverland.

Senescence – that’s how scientists call the process of aging.  According to Marquette University professor Sandra Hunter, aging is rather simple: “Cell death… eventually leads to systems malfunctioning and whole body death.”

Take the case of muscle fibers and nerves connected to them; they gradually die, leading to a loss of strength that starts at age 50 and continues steadily thereafter.

“A deeper question for scientists is, why do the cells die?” asked Popular Science.

Scientists have come up with several theories, and most likely a combination of them explains the aging process.

One theory talks of oxidative damage.  “Normal cell processes release harmful molecules called oxygen free radicals.  Substances in the body called antioxidants neutralize some of them, but a few free radicals escape unscathed and damage cells.  Oxidative damage is linked to such diseases and conditions as heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s,” the science magazine explained.

Another theory focuses on cell death on genes, which limit how often the cells can replicate.  Three American researchers won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2009.  They were cited for their work linking the aging process to telomeres.

“Telomeres are clusters of DNA that cap the chromosomes of complex organisms, protecting the rest of the genetic code during cell division,” the magazine pointed out.  “As cells age, these caps grow smaller, exposing the DNA to breaks and mutations that can lead to cancer or cell death.”

Here’s another fascinating theory: “Certain genes might also control the life span of an entire organism.  Research on worms shows that when scientists mutate genes related to the aging process, they can extend a worm’s life to four times its normal life span.  If similar genes exist in humans and can be changed the same way, people could live, theoretically, to 300 years old.

“Age is only a number, a cipher for the records,” said financier and statesman Bernard Baruch.  “A man can’t retire his experience. He must use it. Experience achieves more with less energy and time.”

Author May Lamberton adds: “We grow neither better nor worse as we grow old, but more like ourselves.”   Italian artist Pablo Picasso agrees: “Age only matters when one is aging. Now that I have reached a great age, I might as well be 20.”

“Age to me means nothing,” said film actor George Burns, the oldest actor to receive an Academy Award for his performance in The Sunshine Boys. “I can’t get old; I’m working. I was old when I was twenty-one and out of work. As long as you’re working, you stay young. When I’m in front of an audience, all that love and vitality sweeps over me and I forget my age.”

Fashion model Linda Evangelista agrees: ” I don’t think age is an ugly process. I think age is a beautiful thing. I love wrinkles. I don’t like falling down. If I just wrinkle, I may not touch. If I fall down, I’ll lift up.”