Since humans first walked the earth, the question of why people age at different rates has always been a forefront question. Is it all health? Is it genes? Recently a trio of scientists from the University of North Carolina argued that more work need to be done on “gerontogens” which are factors that accelerate the aging process. A possible group of gerontogens are environmental toxins and include factors such as arsenic in groundwater, benzene in industrial emissions, ultraviolet radiation in sunlight, and the cocktail of 4,000 toxic chemicals in tobacco smoke. It wouldn’t be surprising, as environmental toxins have already been linked to other health issues such as autism.
“People have focused on slowing aging, which always struck me as premature,” says Norman Sharpless, one of the scientists on the study. Even if scientists announced tomorrow that they’d discovered an anti-aging pill, he says, people would have to take it for decades.
Aging occurs when the body undergoes a biological process known as senescence, when healthy cells become damaged and lose their ability to divide. Over time, these damaged cells accumulate in the body, consuming resources and unleashing hormones with inflammatory properties. “Having a few [of these cells] is not a big deal,” Sharpless said. “But over the course of a lifetime, as they accumulate, they [contribute to] aging and many of the diseases we associate with aging.”
In the future, blood tests evaluating biomarkers of molecular age might be used to understand differences amongst individuals in aging rates. Those tests might measure key pathways involved in the process of cellular senescence or chemical modifications to DNA, and chances are that environmental toxins will be one culprit of accelerated aging.