Friday, July 26, 2013

Advancing Senescence

Discussion of the characteristics of life is usually linked to qualities of developing, growing, or flourishing. Not often is the topic of life’s decline mentioned in the same discussion. For this conversation, we will conflate the two concepts. If an organism is said to be living, it manifests the major characteristics of living things. Optimally functioning living things manifest all the characteristics of life as outlined in our previous blog post:

In living things there are interesting contrasts between flourishing and decline. One difference may be described by the onset of “senescence” in living things ordinarily expected to flourish. At some point living things begin to experience a progressive deterioration of their physiological function. This highlighted clinical definition may seem too scholarly. For humans, several real life examples of senescence may be interesting, even humorous. In men optimal physical function may occur in their mid-20s. Years ago sources claimed age 26 to be the summit of a man’s physical strength and the zenith of his athletic production. His home run production on the church softball team may peak. At age 45, home run production, batting prowess, and reaction times are clearly on the wane.

Also in the realm of humor, media graphics touting restoration of youthful appearance, replete with before and after photographs, indicate how heroically many people strive to ward off the physical effects of aging. Social gatherings of retirees feature weighty verbal comparisons of each other’s ailments and health concerns, sometimes presented jokingly as a virtual badge of honor. Who has had cataract surgeries, hearing aids, plastic surgery, or hair restoration? On a more sobering note, advertising for pharmacological products and legitimate prescriptions from our personal physician are offered to counter a deficiency in “normal” or optimum physiological body functioning. The term “senescence” is underused, possibly because the term “senile” has a more negative connotation and comes from the same root word--old. No one admits to being senescent. It sounds too much like senility!

Some scientists claim senescence begins early in life, a natural outcome of normal deteriorative processes inherent in living things. Senescence begins, in some sense, at the moment of birth. Typically, most physiological processes reach optimal levels after two or three decades of life. After the optimums, physiological function begins a slow deterioration, even in a healthy person. Living octogenarians, nonagenarians, and centenarians supposedly resist the onset of senescence. When such people are asked, “What is the secret of your long life?” their answers may contain a modicum of reality, but most answers are meant to be entertaining. My nonagenarian father used to proclaim, “It’s tough getting old,” even though his Christian outlook was a blessing to others and to himself. In reality his statement was a commentary on the effects of senescence.

Scripture commentary sometimes addresses the natural drift toward senescence in all living things. Ecclesiastes 12 comes to mind as it relates to the human experience of aging. The Apostle Paul’s reference to a thorn in his flesh may have been an outcome of bodily deterioration by aging but the apostle does not elaborate on the nature of his handicap. In a future post we discuss the reality of senescence in terms of the plan of the Creator for humanity and all created animals and plants in the world of living things.