Abstracted from “A Scientist’s View of Almost Everything”

By Mark M. Green

What if someone offers you a deal on a beautiful apartment in an ideal location where you always wanted to live? The apartment is occupied by a 90-year-old woman. If you pay the rent until she dies you will then own the apartment. Andre Raffray is only 47, so he bites, but the 90-year-old lives to 122 and he dies at 77. The woman was Jeanne Calment of Arles, France and you can find her in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest person who has ever lived.

Is not youth supposed to replace age?  There’s a wonderful madrigal claimed to be written by Shakespeare describing the differences between youth and age, which ends with:

“Age I do abhor thee, – Youth I do adore thee; – O! my Love, my Love is young! – Age, I do defy thee — – O sweet shepherd, hie thee, – For methinks thou stay’st too long.”

            Apparently, the sweet shepherd did not follow Shakespeare’s instructions, for Madame Calment, did not “hie thee,” and instead applied the instruction to Monsieur Raffray. Maybe Madame Calment defied death by her healthy life style. One web site reported that she gave up smoking at the age of 119 and only because her blindness made it too difficult to light a cigarette. She is also reported to have ascribed her longevity, among other things, to avoiding brawls, plenty of olive oil poured on everything she ate as well as rubbed into her skin, red and port wine and nearly two pounds of chocolate eaten every week. At 85 she apparently took up fencing and was riding a bicycle at 100.

            Shakespeare was hardly alone in his understanding of the conflict between youth and age. Mozart’s opera “Idomeneo” set in Crete in 1200 BC has youth replacing age as the central theme. On his victorious return from the Trojan Wars, Kind Idomeneo of Crete is obliged to kill the first person he meets on landing (in order to settle his debt to Neptune, God of the sea, for having saved him from a storm). This first person turns out to be his beloved loving son, Idamante. There are many twists and turns in the story but in the end, Neptune is satisfied. Idomeneo gives up his throne to Idamante – Youth replacing age satisfies the gods.

            Is it any wonder that myths abound throughout the centuries in which some mystical-youth-restoring-drink will allow the aged to replace themselves – a fountain of youth. One has never been found and aging appears relentless. But modern science has joined the chase and plenty of money is being poured into trying to understand the biological basis of aging – why we age and how it might be stopped or delayed.

All science agrees that there is a genetic basis for aging, that there has to be aging. This view was first taken about half a century ago, by George C. Williams, who died at 84 and who has been called a “visionary evolutionary biologist,” and Peter B. Medawar, who died at 72 and who won a Nobel Prize for another of his interests, their relatively early deaths consistent with their scientific conclusions.

Williams’ argument was that Darwin’s theory favors passing on genes that help us early in life, when we are reproducing and passing on our genetic makeup, even though these genes may hurt our chances of survival later in life. Our genetic makeup “doesn’t care” if we age, that is, if we decay after our reproducing years are over. Medawar pointed out that if a mutation occurs in our genes, which has a harmful effect only later in our life it will probably be passed on because those who have this harmful gene will already have passed through the years of having children. The genes harmful to life as we age therefore accumulate with the consequences, we all see and feel.

Recent research supports Williams’ and Medawar’s ideas especially in discovering that genes in certain kinds of worms act to enhance reproduction while at the same time contributing to the worm’s decay as it ages. And these genes are related to those found in human beings.

Consider nature’s love of youth over age. We eat organic matter, which means eating carbon atoms in their various states – sugar, fat, protein and so on. Much of what we eat is broken down into small molecules with two carbon atoms each, acetyl coenzyme A, molecules that are produced by organelles called mitochondria found in each of the cells of our body. In the citric acid cycle the two carbon atoms in one of these acetyl coenzyme A molecules are ejected as two molecules of carbon dioxide CO2 – exhale. The change yields the energy that sustains our lives:  but it is not the newly arrived acetyl coenzyme A that become carbon dioxide. They have to wait their turn. The carbon dioxide is first formed from an acetyl coenzyme A, which has arrived earlier on the mitochondrial scene, which we have eaten earlier. Youth replaces age on the biomolecular level.

Youth replaces age – period!

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