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Bull Acad Natl Med. 2009 Feb;193(2):365-402; discussion 402-4.

[The biology of aging].

[Article in French]


Although aging is unavoidable, its course can be influenced by various factors, as illustrated by the increase in life expectancy associated with improvements in hygiene and with the general reduction in morbidity. Longevity has also been altered experimentally in some animal species. Aging follows a period of growth and reproduction. Death may occur when the immortality of the germinal line has been ensured. In other cases it results from gradual cellular deterioration. Four principal molecular and cellular processes have been studied in experimental models (mainly mice, worms and fruit flies):--inhibition of the insulin/IGF-1 axis increases life expectancy by allowing a transcription factor (DAF-16 in C. elegans, FoXo in mice) to enter the nucleus, where it stimulates the expression of genes encoding survival-promoting proteins; one such inhibitor is Klotho protein;--the detrimental effects of highly toxic reactive oxygen species, mainly produced in the mitochondria, are partly controlled by scavenging molecules and enzymes. Their accumulation leads to DNA, lipid and protein changes, resulting in cell dysfunction;--the telomeres situated at the ends of each chromosome get shorter with time because of inadequate telomerase activity, and this appears to be associated with diminished longevity;--autophagia within lysosomes destroys altered proteins and thereby maintains cell homeostasis. However, this activity diminishes with time, resulting in the accumulation of toxic metabolites in the cell, dysfunction of the endoplasmic reticulum and mitochondria, and increased apoptosis. Studies of genetically mediated aging disorders have revealed the importance of lamins (intermediate nuclear filaments). For example, a mutation that prevents the protein lamin A from maturing is the cause of progeria, a disease associated with an acceleration of most aging processes and with premature death. There is no single biological marker of aging. In contrast, a combination of Nt-proBNP, troponin I, C-reactive protein and cystatin may be useful, as increased levels are a risk factor for atheroma and cardiovascular diseases, both of which are associated with aging. The different organs age in different ways: vessel walls become rigid due to protein glycation and develop atheroma; the heart is invaded by fibrosis; the brain suffers from neurofibrillar degeneration and senile plaques (responsible for Alzheimer's disease); the retina undergoes macular degeneration; renal function declines in parallel with the fall in the glomerular filtration rate due to a gradual decrease in the nephron pool; and immune defenses become less effective due to the functional degradation of B and T lymphocytes and thymus involution. Reproduction is a special case: despite the increase in human longevity, the chronology of the reproductive cycle and the age of menopause onset have not changed. The frequency of cancers increases with age, due to the increase in somatic mutations and the decline in immune defenses. Drug therapy must be adapted to age, owing to age-related changes in pharmacology. Physical exercise and dietary measures are currently the only known ways of slowing the aging process.

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