Aging and regulation of apoptosis

Curr Top Cell Regul. 1997;35:107-21. doi: 10.1016/s0070-2137(97)80004-0.


When Lockshin and Zakeri discussed the relevance of apoptosis to aging, the common view was that apoptosis had primarily a negative impact on aging by destroying essential and often irreplaceable cells. That view has now changed to one that acknowledges that there are two general ways in which apoptosis can play a role in aging: (1) elimination of damaged and presumably dysfunctional cells (e.g., fibroblasts, hepatocytes) which can then be replaced by cell proliferation, thereby maintaining homeostasis and elimination of essential postmitotic cells (e.g., neurons) which cannot be replaced, thereby leading to pathology. Evidence exists in two systems (fibroblasts and thymocytes/lymphocytes) that there are age-related decreases in the potential for apoptosis, although the molecular bases for these decreases appear to differ (Table II). Fibroblasts (and neurons?) lose the ability to downregulate bcl-2 in response to an apoptotic signal; thus, apoptosis is blocked even though an initiating signal has been received. In contrast, thymocytes/lymphocytes lack the ability to initiate the signal due to downregulation of the cell surface receptor Fas. There is limited information available for other tissue types, and nothing is known about why and how these age-related changes occur. An interesting observation, but not necessarily a critical one, is that the frequency of upregulation of the bcl-2 gene due to chromosome translocation increases with age. The role of apoptosis in regulating cell number is also a promising area of research. The studies on liver damage and neoplastic lesions suggest an extremely important role for apoptosis in controlling cancer. This may be particularly important in the prostate, where hypertrophy and cancer are a virtual certainty with ever-increasing age. It is not known whether the ability to undergo apoptosis declines in the prostate with increasing age, but it appears likely that it does. One problem in answering questions about the actual regulation of apoptosis is the lack of a quantitative assay. Apoptosis appears to be either "on" or "off" in cells, while the basic cell-killing machinery may often be present, but in an inactive form. Most assays for apoptosis are microscopic rather than kinetic, and the rate-limiting step may be at the level of the initiating signal. Thus, if CR, which extends the life span of rodents, does upregulate apoptosis, it is not clear how to quantify the magnitude of this effect or what should be quantified. The best one can do is to measure the frequency of occurrence of apoptotic bodies. This is essentially a pool size assay which provides little knowledge about how rapidly cells are leaving and entering the pool. Nevertheless, the results currently available do suggest that apoptosis is a process which may be important in aging, at least in some tissues, and the mechanism of its regulation needs to be understood. Although a variety of tumor suppressor gene and oncogene products are known to be involved in signal transduction associated with apoptosis, it remains to be shown which of these, if any, are actually involved in "on-off" switches for apoptosis and which might regulate the intrinsic rate of apoptosis. As Driscoll has already pointed out: "regulation and execution of cell death is an absolutely critical process that interfaces with nearly every aspect of life. Future investigation of the links of cell death to cellular aging and the aging of organisms should be an exciting enterprise."

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Aging / genetics
  • Aging / pathology*
  • Aging / physiology
  • Animals
  • Apoptosis / genetics
  • Apoptosis / physiology*
  • Cellular Senescence
  • Food Deprivation
  • Humans
  • Immunity
  • Longevity
  • Nervous System Diseases / etiology
  • Nervous System Diseases / pathology