Aging is the biological process of getting older. The word aging pertains specifically to human beings, fungi, and many other insects, while for instance perennial plants, bacterial and some sort of simple organisms are theoretically still immortal. While in many regards this seems to imply that death is simply a part of life that all organisms undergo at one time or another, in reality this isn’t so. As we age, our bodies change, sometimes causing us to become ill or disoriented, or even dying prematurely. Therefore it is important that we understand what the definition of aging truly means.
Aging occurs as a gradual process as we age, although this process can accelerate depending on a person’s lifestyle and surroundings. Some external changes, such as exposure to sunlight, increase the production of melatonin, which is a hormone that controls sleep patterns and relaxation. This increased production in the pineal gland can actually prolong life. Unfortunately, melatonin production also decreases with age, thus people in their thirties and up are finding it difficult to remain calm and relaxed even when under the most stressful circumstances.
Internal changes occur as well, with the brain continuing to produce certain proteins called neurotransmitters which relay messages between the different parts of the body. With aging, the rate of protein production decreases, thus the messages aren’t as effective or efficient. Other neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, are affected by these changes, which can also affect memory and learning abilities.
Another internal factor which directly impacts aging processes is decreased oxygenation. This occurs when red blood cells are manufactured only at a fast, rather than a slow rate. The result is that oxygen is carried throughout the body less often, which affects cellular respiration and results in a lowering of the body’s metabolic rate. This can cause many effects, including reduced energy levels, fatigue, and even cell deterioration. Other changes include changes in the immune system, resulting in lowered resistance to disease.
Stress is also a major contributing factor in the aging process. When a person becomes stressed, their bodies release chemicals known as neuropeptides. Neuropeptides not only cause stress to a person, but they also can produce side effects such as depression, high blood pressure, heart problems, and migraine headaches. These biological and behavioral responses to stress weaken cellular defenses, allowing disease-causing bacteria to flourish. When the immune system is weakened, there is a greater chance for infections to take hold and become more serious.
The aging process also includes changes in the digestive system. As we age, our digestion system slows down, which results in a decreased ability to absorb nutrients needed by the body. Digestive disorders can also create imbalances and problems within the gastrointestinal tract. Gastrointestinal problems are a leading cause of malnutrition and disease within the elderly.
Aging also changes how people think. Research has shown that people who are older tend to be less creative than younger people. They also experience less social interaction and engage in less meaningful interactions with other people. For example, a third of older people say they seldom agree on the right topic of conversation. Brain scans have found that people who are aging experience a decline in brain activity related to thought and action.
Most of these physiological and behavioral changes are nothing to be concerned about. However, if you are experiencing some or all of the above changes, it may be time for a medical consultation. Some diseases associated with aging, such as Alzheimer’s and cancer, can be progressive, meaning they get worse over time, making it difficult to treat. Other diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, and certain types of heart disease may only manifest themselves in later years.