WHY AND HOW DO WE AGE?
One of the major findings of research in this area is that ageing and the associated diseases are far from being as inevitable as was first thought. There are now many means available, not to rejuvenate, but at least to influence the rapid evolution of the ageing process and to avoid some of its pathological consequences.
IN OUR ROUTINE DAILY LIFE, IT IS COMMON TO FIND THAT SOME PEOPLE AGE FASTER THAN OTHERS: DOES THAT OBSERVATION CORRESPOND TO A SCIENTIFIC REALITY?
Our organisms and the elements that make them all age differently and at different speeds. Some people seem to have somewhat hereditary resistance to ageing, and mostly end their life at a very advanced age, without any prior alteration of their state of health. On the other hand, other people age more rapidly and have their lives interrupted early, perhaps because of genetic predispositions to certain conditions, but also and especially because of lifestyles and individual behaviours that will squander their health capital. For example, excessive blood pressure, overweight, excessive smoking and abnormal cholesterol are all risk factors that will act synergistically to induce premature ageing of the cardiovascular system.
AS AGE ITSELF IS A MAJOR RISK FACTOR, IS IT POSSIBLE TO SLOW THE AGEING PROCESS?
We are still far from having completely understood the biological basis of the phenomenon of ageing. Nevertheless, considerable progress has been made in this field over the last few years and the pieces of the puzzle are beginning to take shape. Several fundamental molecular mechanisms directly involved in the senescence process have already been identified. As our understanding of aging progresses and new biochemical pathways are discovered, pharmacological means are developed that allow us to partially block the intimate workings of ageing. Slowing down the biological process of senescence is therefore another important step in the fight against ageing.
FROM WHEN SHOULD WE START PREVENTIVE ACTIONS AGAINST AGEING?
Our physiological decline begins very early in life, as soon as our development phase is complete and we have reached sexual maturity. In theory, prevention should also be as early as possible. For example, it is essential, during adolescence, to build up sufficient bone capital to avoid osteoporosis later in life. In practice, it is the first clinical manifestations of ageing that will give the alarm and lead to a preventive approach, even if it is relatively late. Naturally, the more preventive action is taken sooner, the more effective it is, but even in the most advanced ages it still has its usefulness.
HOW DO WE INCREASE OUR CHANCES OF AGEING GRACEFULLY?
It is important to detect as early as possible the physiological alterations that may adversely affect health with age. For this purpose, biological markers are increasingly accurate to assess the degree of deterioration of an organ or system and to identify the risk factors likely to eventually cause a dysfunction of the organism or a disease. Risk factors must be identified and naturally eliminated. It should be noted that two thirds of the diseases responsible for early mortality can be prevented. Finally, more generally, in terms of ageing prevention, there is a golden rule: “it is the function that keeps the organ”. Any unused function will lead to the deterioration of the corresponding organ. Maintaining performance therefore depends on the continuation of activities, even if it requires more effort with age.
HOW DO YOU DESCRIBE THE FUTURE IN THE FIELD OF HEALTH AND AGEING?
The ageing of our society is not an eventuality, it is a real fact that we must already take into account. For this ageing to be acceptable to the individual and society, there is no alternative but to attempt to confine illness to the ultimate end of our biological existence. It is therefore essential to develop the instruments of predictive and preventive medicine and to improve our scientific knowledge of the biological mechanisms of senescence. With these weapons, we must also become the actors responsible for our own health, encouraged and supported in this way by effective programmes for the prevention of ageing.
YOUR TIPS FOR HAPPY AGING?
We could paraphrase the definition of health given in 1946, when the WHO was constituted, by saying that successful ageing is a complete state of physical, mental and social well-being and does not consist solely in an absence of disease or infirmity. The merit of this definition is to bring out the notion of “well-being” concerning both the psychic, social and physical aspects. Hence, a happy ageing is an ageing accomplished in these three dimensions.