Heath and Aging

Biology of Aging

AGING UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

two men racing
Photo credit: Marty Katz

We marvel at the 90-year-old who still gets up every day and goes to work. And, it is a genuine thrill to celebrate a relative’s 100th birthday. Yet our feelings about aging are complex.

We may want to live forever, but who looks forward to getting old? We hope we’re vigorous right up until the very end. Still, day-to-day, many of us make unhealthy choices that could put our future at risk.

From the beginning of time, people have tried to understand aging. Almost every culture has a mythology to explain it. As we grow up, tales of eternal youth pique our curiosity. And, it is these musings that may provide just the spark needed to ignite a budding scientist. There’s the little girl, excited to visit her grandmother, who asks her parents how someone so spunky and fun could be so old. Or, the 3rd grader who, after watching in awe as a caterpillar spins a cocoon and then days later emerges as a butterfly, peppers the teacher with questions about this magical transformation. These are the types of questions and kinds of experiences that could stimulate a lifelong quest to explore what happens as we age.

Since the National Institute on Aging (NIA) was established at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1974, scientists asking just such questions have learned a great deal about the processes associated with the biology of aging. For scientists who study aging—called gerontologists—this is an exciting time. Technology today supports research that years ago would have seemed possible only in a science fiction novel. And, a scientific community that values active collaboration as well as individual scientific achievement has helped to move research forward faster than ever before.

Over centuries, theories about aging have emerged and faded, but the true nature of the aging process is still uncertain. The fact is—aging is a part of everyone’s life. But the facts of aging—what is happening on a biochemical, genetic, and physiological level—remain rich for exploration.

This booklet introduces some key areas of research into the biology of aging. Each area is a part of a larger field of scientific inquiry. You can look at each topic individually, or you can step back to see how they fit together in a lattice-work, interwoven to help us better understand aging processes. Research on aging is dynamic, constantly evolving based on new discoveries, and so this booklet also keeps an open eye on the future, as today’s research provides the strongest hints of things to come.

Publication Date: November 2011
Page Last Updated: January 25, 2012