Daniel Gutkoski

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Daniel Gutkoski

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    Daniel Gutkoski

    Gerontology Senior Seminar


    Dr. Patty Lynott

    February 26, 2006

    Biological Theories of Aging: How They Contradict the Anti-Aging Movement

     A critical analysis of the current biological theories of aging as they apply to the

    anti-aging movement demonstrates a clear need for more current and up to date

    biological theories as to why we age. In today’s society, many individuals have

    demonstrated their want and desire to “outrun” aging. The mythical fountain of youth that

    thPonce De Leon was searching for when he discovered Florida in the 16 century is one of the earliest stories demonstrating the human hope that they can slow and eventually

    stop aging. However, he was certainly not the last. Each year, more and more products

    advertising that they are “the cure” of aging appear on the market, and make quite a

    lucrative business. Many companies are selling their product branded with the “anti-aging” message, and people are certainly buying them. However, it is a fact, we cannot stop aging. However, it is important to differentiate between two key principles before


     A definition from the Wikipedia encyclopedia defines aging as “the process of

    getting older” (Ageing. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia). This broad definition provides for the clear distinction of the many biological theories of aging. These theories,

    while they are called Theories of Aging, a majority deal with senescence. “In biology, senescence is the combination of processes of deterioration which follow the period of

    development of an organism. Aging is generally characterized by the declining ability to

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    respond to stress, increasing homeostatic imbalance and increased risk of disease.

    Because of this, death is the ultimate consequence of aging” (Senescence. Wikipedia, The

    Free Encyclopedia). The two terms, aging and senescence are commonly interchanged,

    often times incorrectly. While one may argue that the process of aging (getting older) and

    the process of senescence (deteriorating) are always occurring, they are in essence two

    separate and distinct processes.

     There are quite a few biological theories of aging which present an idea as to why

    we as humans age. The first of many theories of aging, the “Wear and Tear” theory was

    first developed by a German biologist in 1882. Dr. Weismann believed that “the body and

    its cells were damaged by overuse and abuse. [The body’s organs] were worn down by

    excessive toxins in our diet and in the environment… and the many other physical and

    emotional stresses to which we subject our bodies” (Theories of Aging). However, the

    “Wear and Tear” theory does not get to the real issue that these theories are attempting to

    answer, and that is exactly why we age. While his argument that our bodies are worn out

    over time may be true, there are much better explanations in today’s research in the aging


    Dr. Vladimir Dilman expanded on Weismann’s theory through his

    Neuroendocrine Theory, in which he presented the idea that it is our hormone regulation

    in the hypothalamus region of the brain which causes aging. He stated that “Hormones

    are vital for repairing and regulating our bodily functions, and when aging causes a drop

    in hormone production, it causes a decline in our body's ability to repair and regulate

    itself as well” (Theories of Aging). The Genetic Control Theory expands further on

    Dilman’s work providing the basis that there is an internal body clock within all humans.

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    “To use a macabre analogy, it’s as though each of us comes into the world as a machine

    that is preprogrammed to self-destruct. Each of us has a biological clock ticking away set

    to go off at a particular time, give or take a few years. When that clock goes off it signals

    our bodies first to age and then to die” (Theories of Aging). There has been limited

    research on this notion of a body clock within our cells. However, it would seem logical

    that is there were hormones which were directly responsible for starting the final process

    of senescence, that there would also be some type of body clock working in the main

    endocrine gland to direct and dictate the release of that hormone. However, to date, there

    has been no discovery to that effect.

    One of the most promising theories relating to a “biological clock of aging” has

    come about through the Cellular Theories, specifically on the chromosomal level. The

    telomeres, or the tiny tips at the end of chromosomes, appear to shorten each time a cell

    replicates. Therefore, only a limited number of replications of a cell can occur before that

    cell is damaged. “Scientists discovered that the key element in rebuilding our

    disappearing telomeres is the "immortalizing" enzyme telomerase, an enzyme found only

    in germ cells and cancer cells. Telomerase appears to repair and replace telomeres

    manipulating the "clocking" mechanism that controls the life span of dividing cells. The

    future development of telomerase inhibitor may be able to stop cancer cells from dividing

    and presumably may convert them back into normal cells” (Theories of Aging).

    The theories which lend a hand to the anti-aging movement have been embraced

    for their value in helping to sell products which have the ability to “counteract” the

    process of aging, almost as if aging is something which can be stopped. The theories that

    seem to be most embraced by the Anti-Aging Movement are those which specifically

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    relate to free radicals. The Free Radical Theory was given much publicity upon its

    publication as one of the first new and dramatic theories addressing aging in the mid

    1950s. The premise of the Free Radical Theory is that there are unstable molecules, or

    free radicals, which are a by-product of oxygen metabolism. “Free radicals are highly reactive and toxic when they come in contact with other cell structures, thus generating

    biologically abnormal molecules. The result may be mutations, damage to cell

    membranes, or damage by cross-linkage in collagen” (Moody 344). Also presented in this theory was the fact that “the body itself produces so-called antioxidant substances as a

    protection against free radicals. These antioxidants “scavenge” and destroy free radicals”

    (Id.) As a result, almost any health food store that one might enter today would have a

    section full of antioxidant substances. This multi-million dollar industry is all premised

    on this one theory, and many individuals are purchasing these products. It is also only

    expected to increase in popularity with the explosion of Americans entering old age in the

    next decade.

     A further analysis of the anti-aging movement would not be complete without

    discussion of some of the psychological theories of aging. These psychological theories

    go to the heart of the psyche of the problem, identity. Many adults as they age feel a loss

    of their personal identity that they have known all their lives. As their external features

    begin to show the signs of aging (wrinkles, graying hair, etc.), they feel as though they

    must adapt and counteract the signs. Whitbourne’s model of the life-span construct

    explains this phenomenon. The life-span construct is an individual’s “unified sense of the

    past, present, and the future” (Cavanaugh et. al. 351). There are many societal influences

    on this construct, including values and social context and makes the argument that there

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    are scenarios which translate directly to our identity. An individual’s identity is of the utmost importance in the creation of the life span construct. Furthermore, an aging person

    will use the scenarios from the past in the creation of those for the future. Therefore, one

    will see that they look differently and attempt to change this fact so that they are better

    able to create scenarios for the future in a more similar manner as those which have

    happened in the past. The notion of one’s self-concept is also introduced through

    Whitbourne’s theory. Self-concept is “the organized, coherent and integrated patter of self-perceptions… and it includes self-esteem and self-image” (Cavanaugh et. al. 353).

    Studies have been done on the effect which aging has on the self-esteem. While having

    low self-confidence at some point is relatively common, “gifted women who exhibited

    “high self-confidence in early adulthood becomes manifested as higher life-satisfaction

    during their 60s” (Id. 354).

     The life-span (life-course) perspective is also important to consider when

    discussing the psychological changes which older age brings. Because aging is a life-long

    process, understanding one’s past is just as important as understanding their present when

    discussing what they will do in the future. The life span perspective views aging over the

    entire life of the subject, taking into great account their past and present experiences,

    because it’s impossible to know where someone is going without knowing where they

    have been. Furthermore, placing adulthood in a broader context of lifespan is what aging

    is all about. Eric Erikson is one of the most well know life-span theorists. According to

    him, “personality is determined by the interactions between an inner maturational plan

    and the external societal demands” (Cavanaugh et. al. 339). Examining the changing

    psyche of an older adult, his stage of ego integrity versus despair is extremely important.

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    His theory is that older adults struggle between these two opposites, and will eventually

    side with one. Those who side with ego integrity have an understanding that the sunset of

    their lives is upon them. They are able to reminisce on the happy times of their life and

    work towards fulfilling those goals which are still unsatisfied. Those who fall into despair

    are unable to accept the fact that they are growing old and nearing death. They are

    overtaken by a sense of meaningless, and are unable to face old age enthusiastically.

    These individuals usually feel the need to maintain a status quo of their younger days,

    and as a result turn to the anti-aging market to, at least feel as if they are younger through

    their appearance.

     Further research, stemming from Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development is evidenced in McAdam’s Life-Story Model. He “argues that a person’s sense of identity

    cannot be understood using the language of dispositional traits of personal concerns. It is

    not just a collection of traits, nor is it a collects of plans, strategies, or goals. Instead, it is based on a story of how the person came into being, where the person has been, where is

    or she is going, and who he or she will become” (Cavanaugh et. al. 350). This life story is

    a narration, starting all the way with birth and early childhood memories complete with

    an anticipated ending, all of this is “created and revised throughout adulthood as people

    change and the changing environment places different demands on them” (Id.) As an

    aging adult goes through a different experience, their life-story will certainly change.

    Therefore, individuals who say, are exposed to a more beautiful environment in terms of

    people around them (say Southern California for example as I am sitting here), would be

    more likely to write their life-story with an inclination in staying young in order to fit into their environment. People say in Cleveland, OH who are exposed much less to bathing

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    suits and halter tops would be far less likely to change their story to fit in to this type of lifestyle. Now, that is not to say that someone in Cleveland is not going to experience a different life scenario which makes them feel as though they need to slow the aging process and purchase these products which are branded with anti-aging on the bottle, however, I would hypothesize that they are far more likely to do so.

     In conclusion, there are many psychological theories which present strong evidence as to why the anti-aging movement exists. Whitbourne, Erikson and McAdams’

    theories of past events in life influencing the future pose very strong arguments as to why individuals feel that they are able to stop the aging process. However, the biological theories of aging filled with the many ideas of the science behind aging, with the exception of the free radical theory do just the opposite. These theories state that aging is not something which is able to be stopped, just something which occurs. While these two theoretical areas clash in their ability to explain the growing economical impact that products claiming to stop the aging process are having on today’s economy, it does show that the psyche of an aging adult plays a large part. The psychological theories of aging are right on point with explanations of the psychological changes of the aging adult and are able to shed a great deal of light on the psychosocial aspects of growing old. While the biological theories may never be able to fully explain the aging process, the gerontology community has an enormous deal of insight as to why adults feel that aging is something that can be slowed and stopped. Perhaps Ponce de Leon was on the right course when searching for the mythical fountain of youth. Sometimes having hope that something is slowing your signs of aging is just enough of a placebo to do it.

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    Works Cited

    Cavanaugh, J., & Blanchard-Fields, F. (Eds.). (2002). Adult development and aging. 4th

    ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Thompson Learning.

    Moody, H. (Ed.). (2000). Aging: concepts and controversies. 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks, CA:

    Pine Forge Press.

Theories of aging. (n.d.). Retrieved Feb. 26, 2006, from Theories of Aging Web site:

    Wikipedia contributors (2006). Ageing. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved

    21:00, February 13, 2006 from


    Wikipedia contributors (2006). Senescence. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

    Retrieved 21:00, February 13, 2006 from


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