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How we age

10/03/03 12:00AM By Mary Barrosse-Schwartz
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(Host) Recently, commentator Mary Barrosse Schwartz has been researching a subject that eventually will catch up with all of us: How we age.


(Barrosse Schwartz) What makes our bodies age? What turns the hair from brown to gray? Why does it get harder to see? 70 million baby boomers are nearing retirement age, starting to feel the real effects of aging, and starting to ask these questions.

The causes of aging aren't clearly understood. But scientists agree that factors including environment, genetics and behavior are probably at the heart of the process. There are many theories on how we age, most falling into two categories.

The programmed theories suggest that due to natural selection, our systems are programmed to fail at a certain age. The immune system includes certain
chemicals, the production of which is turned off and on at different ages. Programmed changes in hormones may also be involved in aging.

The immune system may switch off production of a substance that signal cells to keep us young and healthy, and switches on a substance that makes us less immune from illness and disease. Not surprisingly these substances - called
leukotrienes - are the subject of much research nowadays.

The other theories fall under the error category. These theories claim that environmental factors gradually damage your body, limiting normal function. The free radical theory explains aging as the gradual cell level damage caused by the normal byproducts of metabolism. The wear-and-tear theory
simply suggests that important parts of our bodies wear out over time.

Another theory suggests that there is a limited number of times our cells can divide because of gradual damage to the protective caps at the end of the DNA strands - called telomeres.

The life span for the average American has increased by 40 years since 1910. Can we assume that 40 years from now, by 2043, we will live to 120?

According to the National Institutes of Health, the fastest-growing age group is over 85 years old. The number is expected to grow from 4 million today to 19 million in 50 years.

There have been many research projects exploring how to slow aging and a great deal of progress in the study of gerontology - or the process of aging - has been made in the last ten years.

The illusive fountain of youth may be closer than ever.

In East Dorset, this is Mary Barrosse Schwartz.

Mary Barrosse Schwartz is a mother, a freelance writer and an artist.
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