Aging: overview

Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2001 Apr;928:1-21. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2001.tb05631.x.


Aging is a universal process that began with the origination of life about 3.5 billion years ago. Accumulation of the diverse deleterious changes produced by aging throughout the cells and tissues progressively impairs function and can eventually cause death. Aging changes can be attributed to development, genetic defects, the environment, disease, and an inborn process--the aging process. The chance of death at a given age serves as a measure of the average number of aging changes accumulated by persons of that age, that is, of physiologic age, and the rate of change of this measure as the rate of aging. Chances for death are decreased by improvements in general living conditions. As a result, during the past two millennia average life expectancy at birth (ALE-B), determined by the chances for death, of humans has risen from 30 years, in ancient Rome, to almost 80 years today in the developed countries. Chances for death in the developed countries are now near limiting values and ALE-Bs are approaching plateau values that are 6-9 years less than the potential maximum of about 85 years. Chances for death are now largely determined by the inherent aging process after age 28. Only 1.1% of female cohorts in Sweden die before this age; the remainder die off at an exponentially increasing rate with advancing age. The inherent aging process limits ALE-B to around 85 years, and the maximum life span (MLS) to about 122 years. Past efforts to increase ALE-B did not require an understanding of aging. Such knowledge will be necessary in the future to significantly increase ALE-B and MLS, and to satisfactorily ameliorate the medical, economic, and social problems associated with advancing age. The many theories advanced to account for aging should be used, to the extent it is feasible, to help with these important practical problems, including applications of the free radical theory of aging. Past measures evolved by societies to ensure adequate care for older individuals are rapidly becoming inadequate because of changes in life style, the growing percentage of older people, declining fertility rates, and the diminishing size of the work forces to provide for the elderly. Measures are being advanced to help with this problem. Prospects are bright for further increases in the span of functional life and improvements in the lives of the elderly.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Aging* / genetics
  • Aging* / physiology
  • Animals
  • Antioxidants / administration & dosage
  • Antioxidants / pharmacology
  • Antioxidants / therapeutic use
  • Biological Evolution
  • Cohort Studies
  • Demography
  • Environmental Exposure
  • Female
  • Forecasting
  • Free Radicals
  • Gerbillinae
  • Humans
  • Life Expectancy / trends
  • Life Style
  • Longevity / physiology
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Inbred C57BL
  • Middle Aged
  • Mitochondria / physiology
  • Models, Biological
  • Mortality / trends
  • Origin of Life
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Oxygen / adverse effects
  • Oxygen / physiology
  • Rats
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Species Specificity
  • Superoxides / metabolism


  • Antioxidants
  • Free Radicals
  • Superoxides
  • Oxygen