Written by Ariella Coler-Reilly, MD and PhD Candidate
As an MD/PhD candidate working on my doctoral thesis in molecular cell biology, I study the role of gene expression in aging. While the genetic code itself remains basically unchanged throughout one’s lifespan, the amount each gene is actively used, or “expressed,” varies with a multitude of factors, including age. There is still much we do not understand about why we age, and I believe some of those secrets are still hidden in our genes. I chose this line of research because aging biology plays a central role in health and disease.
We all instinctively know that health declines with age. Life is full of jokes about creaking joints, complaints about slowing metabolism, and fears of illness and death. If a young person experiences heart disease, arthritis, or dementia, it is extraordinary. If – or more accurately, when – an elderly person is diagnosed with one or more of these conditions, it is ordinary. Thus, you already know that aging is the primary risk factor for these and many other diseases.
The typical approach in modern medicine is to tackle each disease as a separate entity. Indeed, if you seek treatment at a hospital, as quickly as possible, you will be shuttled to a department staffed with specialists matching your particular complaint. Biomedical research operates in similar siloes, in which grants are awarded to specialist laboratories to study their disease of interest.
In recent years, this status quo has been questioned, and a field called geroscience has emerged. Geroscience is the study of the mechanisms of aging. As geroscientists, we operate under the principle that targeting the aging process itself is the best way to prevent and treat age-related diseases. Instead of playing disease whack-a-mole with elderly patients, shuttling them from one department to the next with each new diagnosis, we target pathways predicted to reduce the burden of multiple diseases at once.
The geroscience field is evolving and growing, and there are a number of ways to learn more and get involved. When I first decided to explore this field, I registered to attend Cold Spring Harbor’s annual Mechanisms of Aging meeting, which to this day remains my favorite academic conference. To broaden the scope of my education beyond academia, I joined the On Deck Longevity Biotech program to network with industry professionals. Perhaps the latest evolution of this space is an organization called VitaDAO, an online community funding early-stage translational geroscience research using cryptocurrency. I contribute to VitaDAO as an editor for the community’s longevity science blog.
Aging and longevity research is often misunderstood and conflated with quests for immortality. I opened this piece by prompting you to confirm what you already know: disease is ordinary in the elderly, and the study of aging is the study of disease prevention. Rather than lifespan, the geroscience community talks about “healthspan,” defined as the period of life free from diseases of aging. A primary goal is compression of morbidity, i.e., shortening the length of suffering at the end of life. I would like to close this piece by asking you to imagine a hypothetical future where life expectancy may continue to hover around 80 years old, but when you hear that your 70-year-old neighbor suffered a heart attack, you find it extraordinary.