Is Aging a Choice?

The idea that aging is a choice will strike many readers as preposterous and I will admit at the outset that such a position can ultimately not be maintained. But in a milder sense, it should be recognized that we can make decisions in life regarding diet and lifestyle that can mitigate or accelerate the aging process. This “wiggle room” may turn out to be of great importance for reaching a time when serious rejuvenation biotechnologies will become available.

According to biologist Michael R. Rose (see the interview in Cryonics magazine, September 2013) aging is not an immutable process of wear and tear that unfolds through iron logic without being sensitive to lifestyle and diet. Aging begins after the start of reproduction and the forces of natural selection decline with chronological age, eventually stopping at late age (which raises the possibility that aging stops).

Some things that we associate with aging are not inevitable physiological processes but choices or decisions to conform to expectations. For example, when people reach adulthood, and pursue a family and career, they often conform to a lifestyle that involves more time sitting at a desk or in cars, more time spent inside, less time socializing with friends, and are subject to increasing amounts of stress and sleep deprivation.

As the physiological consequences of such a lifestyle (obesity, higher blood pressure, declining free hormone levels) express themselves many people tell themselves such things are the inevitable effects of getting older. But alternative scenarios may be possible if we remain aware of our environment, lifestyle, and diet.

In the case of diet, the dominant opinion remains that a healthy diet can be identified regardless of age, sex, and population group. There is increasing evidence, however, that such a perspective leaves a lot to be desired and that too much reductionism in these matters is not a good thing. There are, however, a number of observations that can be made. Restriction of calories (or intermittent fasting or meal skipping) seems to trigger a beneficial stress response that improves health and perhaps even extends life. Similarly, adopting a diet that more closely mimics that of hunter gatherers in conjunction with giving up a sedentary lifestyle has been successful in improving the lives (and looks!) of many people, in particular in the case of obesity.

What makes it rather difficult to adopt such lifestyle changes is that we are almost continuously exposed to an environment that makes it rather difficult to effect such changes. Most of our food is highly processed, loaded with carbs and sugar, and served in portion sizes that always seem to increase. When we move from one location to another the emphasis is on minimizing energy expenditure and eliminating resistance. We work in dark and confined spaces during the day and are exposed to light until we go to sleep (or sometimes even during sleep!). When we come home we turn on the television or the computer to “socialize.” It should not surprise us that such an “unnatural” lifestyle translates into the classic signs of aging and functional deterioration.

There is a lot at stake here. As daunting as it may seem, the idea that aging is not a uniform “process” that swallows us up at a constant rate opens up the possibilities of positive change. Armed with the latest findings in evolutionary biology and medicine we can start pushing back, stabilize the situation as best as we can, and reach a time when more radical rejuvenation biotechnologies will become available. Start moving, start lifting, go camping, make new friends, eat organic and fermented foods, skip the occasional meal, and cut the sugar!

Originally published as a column (Quod incepimus conficiemus) in Cryonics magazine, October, 2013