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Sci Aging Knowledge Environ. 2003 Jul 16;2003(28):RE5.

The quest for a general theory of aging and longevity.

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Center on Aging, National Opinion Research Center/University of Chicago, Chicago, IL 60637, USA.


Extensive studies of phenomena related to aging have produced many diverse findings, which require a general theoretical framework to be organized into a comprehensive body of knowledge. As demonstrated by the success of evolutionary theories of aging, quite general theoretical considerations can be very useful when applied to research on aging. In this theoretical study, we attempt to gain insight into aging by applying a general theory of systems failure known as reliability theory. Considerations of this theory lead to the following conclusions: (i) Redundancy is a concept of crucial importance for understanding aging, particularly the systemic nature of aging. Systems that are redundant in numbers of irreplaceable elements deteriorate (that is, age) over time, even if they are built of elements that do not themselves age. (ii) An apparent aging rate or expression of aging is higher for systems that have higher levels of redundancy. (iii) Redundancy exhaustion over the life course explains a number of observations about mortality, including mortality convergence at later life (when death rates are becoming relatively similar at advanced ages for different populations of the same species) as well as late-life mortality deceleration, leveling off, and mortality plateaus. (iv) Living organisms apparently contain a high load of initial damage from the early stages of development, and therefore their life span and aging patterns may be sensitive to early-life conditions that determine this initial damage load. Thus, the reliability theory provides a parsimonious explanation for many important aging-related phenomena and suggests a number of interesting testable predictions. We therefore suggest adding the reliability theory to the arsenal of methodological approaches applied to research on aging.

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