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Is Old Age a Disease?

Probably best to get the question out of the way, before we have a full-on old age cure.
Photo: Shutterstock

Yesterday, Motherboard reported on a just-out study describing the restorative effects of the protein molecule GDF11 on age-damaged tissues within mouse hearts, brains, and skeletal muscles. The molecule, what's known as a growth factor, not only led to the repair of tissues, but to the repair of the DNA responsible for those tissues and their upkeep in the first place.

It's thought that as this DNA makes its way through a life, it accumulates junk data as the result of mutations over time. That junk prevents the DNA from doing the same repair work that it did when the body is still young. You might even think of a dose as a reboot in computing, where all of the lingering processes occurring in a machine are cleared away.

Researchers and doctors like to look at things in terms of specific pathologies, e.g. what is the precise disease this might treat? You won't find very many scientists publishing papers on just "staying young for longer." So, with this molecule that does good things for the heart, we look at diastolic heart failure. With the added knowledge that it works on the brain too, we turn to Alzheimer's. But GDF11 would seem to be very general; right now it's three for three for acting on different organs in the body, and we already know it's at least implicated in a variety of other organs/systems. So we might even imagine that, as GDF11 research expands outward, it might just meet a new disease: age.

If a whole range of diseases are the result of declining GDF11 levels in the body, then it's not really hard to imagine a disease that just is the decline itself. It'd be one big package of pathologies under one generalized roof, like, say, hypothyroidism, an illness sometimes known as the "great imitator" because it encompasses symptoms and syndromes associated with about every illness ever. Treating it, meanwhile, is just a matter of upping the levels of one hormone in the blood. You might imagine GDF11 deficiency in a similar light, except of course that age happens to everyone.

Society hasn't really found an "OK" way to die. "Old age" is about the closest we have, and there's not actually such a thing as dying of old age. People die of aging-related diseases, like the two mentioned above, but also cancer and even just getting the flu as an old person. Bodies get worn down by time because that's what time does; GDF11 would seem like a way of not buying extra time, but of resetting the clock in general, erasing age and, most strangely, erasing time. Which is where it gets ominous, if vaguely so: the clock itself as the disease.

Without an OK way to die, it's just a fact of existence that age will become the future's illness, possibly with an easy, cheap treatment to match. It's the promise of an asynchronous world. Maybe that's when we'll really figure out death, and welcome it back like an old friend.