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1 April 2014

978 0 81534 213 7
Garland Science
GBP 63.42

Biology of Aging

Roger B. McDonald

The cover of this book is a striking image of an elderly African woman with a wrinkled and wizened but vibrant face. If ever an image depicted the concept of aging, this is it. In choosing to address this fascinating subject, the author has captured a topical zeitgeist. Whether in the laboratory or at the cosmetics counter, gerontological research and the fervent fight against the ravages of aging has preoccupied humans for years, so the appearance of this book is timely. It condenses current theories and ideas on aging and brings together several scientific disciplines to explain, quite simply, why humans age.

Split into ten chapters, the reader is taken on a veritable biogerontological smorgasbord of aging concepts, from genotype to phenotype. In the first few pages, the author provides us with a definition of aging: “aging is the random change in the structure and function of molecules, cells and organisms that is caused by the passage of time and by one’s interaction with the environment. Aging increases the probability of death”. Although no one can argue with such a technically correct and astute definition, it is not the kind of tag line you would expect to see advertised on a tub of face cream, especially the last line! Humour aside, with this definition, the author adroitly paints a genetic, molecular and environmental picture of how aging affects cellular processes and mechanisms. Rather depressingly, as we age, our cellular machinery can start to break down thanks to entropic disharmony. For this, we can blame the laws of thermodynamics, as in unordered energy-inefficient systems, damaged proteins accumulate and harmful mutations become manifest, leading to a dramatic loss of molecular fidelity, i.e. aging. However, some humans buck this trend by combining a robust genetic and cellular fitness with a sympathetic environment, arguably leading to increased longevity. These bittersweet concepts dovetail with the issue of personalized genomics where, if prophecies are correct, and you have the money to pay for it, rapid sequencing technologies can identify personalized critical polymorphic biomarkers which could predict a 100th birthday celebration and a tweet (telegrams are last century!) from the Queen!

As with most medical and clinical disciplines, model-organism-based research plays a huge role in delineating molecular mechanisms of aging. With calorific restriction (CR) studies, the author cites less complex organisms such as yeast, nematode worms and fruitflies as being crucial in this regard. Pivotal studies using the tractable Saccharomyces cerevisiae have shown that, when overexpressed, the histone deacetylase sir2 gene (silent information regulator 2) doubles the yeast’s replicative lifespan. Similarly, the lifespans of Caenorhabditis elegans and Drosophila are increased in conjunction with CR, concomitant with delays in the start of reproduction. What about human CR studies? Some short-term studies have taken place; however, these are fraught with logistical and psychological issues. Small sample sizes, high drop-out rates and the need for intensive psychological counselling of participants have hindered such studies; however, anecdotal evidence suggests that there is some credence in reducing your daily calorific intake by as much as 25% in order to prolong your life. However, the question remains: is CR sustainable over a lifetime and, more importantly, how long would that lifetime be?

This review has barely scratched the surface of this book which is listed on Amazon at a reasonable £42. Many subjects have been omitted, such as old age and sexual activity, lifestyle choices and aging, and how long will a newborn live? That aging is a complex process cannot be denied, however, Biology of Aging has made considerable inroads into clarifying some fundamental concepts. Much information throughout is introductory genetics, biochemistry and molecular biology, therefore more experienced scientists and professionals might pass over these sections. However, the book will appeal to young graduates, PhD/medical students who will learn that eating less and exercising more could potentially add on a few more years.

John P. Phelan (Waterford Institute of Technology, Ireland)

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