• Lutz Kraushaar

Is Robustification Against Aging An Alien Concept?

Updated: Jun 22, 2018

Remember the movie Cocoon?

Some nursing home residents accidentally discover the rejuvenating force of benevolent alien visitors.

In the end they are given a choice between joining the aliens for a supposedly eternal life, free from sickness, frailty or death, or staying on Earth with the admittedly bleaker prospects that the rest of us face.

To those aliens human aging is a chronic disease with a 100% fatality rate.

To (Earthly) medical scientists it isn't.

They call aging a natural phenomenon BECAUSE EVERYBODY AGES!


Now here are a couple of facts to pull out when someone says aging is not a disease.

First, it is the biggest risk factor for all the chronic diseases that account for over 60% of all deaths: cardiovascular disease, cancer, dementia, diabetes, frailty [1].

In fact, unless you catch a nasty infection, kill yourself or leave that to somebody else, you'll die of something that is best predicted by your calendar age.

Better predicted by calendar age than by all the other risk factors combined [2].

Second, all those chronic diseases have one thing in common: they all go hand in glove with a decline of physiological function.

Like cardiovascular function, or immune function, or metabolic function.

For all these functions there exists a threshold.

Once any of those functions drops below that threshold the body as a whole cannot survive.

Now here is the third fact, the one where it becomes really ironic: While medical science labels those chronic diseases as a "decline of function", it also defines aging as: "a gradual and irreversible decline of function" [3].

Now, aging NOT a disease, seriously?

Let's stay with that FUNCTION thing for a moment.

The relatively young science of complex systems has discovered that every complex system has the ability to maintain its function not only against external and internal disturbances but also against failure of one or some of its parts.

They call this property robustness [4]. It's the result of all these parts interacting with each other in a complex network.

That's Mother Nature's ingenious insurance against system failure when individual parts of the system have been damaged, knocked out or severely disturbed.

Because as long as the system finds alternative patterns of interaction that produce the same functional output it will survive.

It's the proverbial case of the whole being bigger than the sum of its parts.

In fact, robustness is what differentiates complex systems from those that are merely complicated.

In the human body trillions of cells interact with each other on several levels, from cell to tissue to organ to system to whole organism.

Over a life time a myriad of things can and will go wrong.

Medicine is all about understanding those myriad of things, and about finding cures or treatments to deal with the consequences.

Robustification is about the opposite.

It's about keeping the body's functions up regardless of what has been going wrong.

And since functional decline is aging, robustification is a strategy to slow down aging, halt it or even reverse it.

Robustification kills 2 birds with one stone:

it prevents the chronic diseases, that, like aging, are defined as functional decline, and it buys time.

Time that may make a sizeable difference, between on the one hand surviving long enough and in good enough health to benefit from future medical rejuvenation technologies, and on the other hand missing that boat.

That boat will bring us nowhere near the aliens' option of an eternal life.

But, hey, I'd gladly exchange a longer life free from dementia, heart disease or frailty for a life cut short, and disabled, by those dreadful conditions.

That's why robustification should not at all remain an alien concept.

Especially not since we already have all the tools to make it today's reality.

More about that in this post.



[1] K. D. Kochanek, S. L. Murphy, M. D. Xu, Jiaquan, and E. Arias, “Mortality in the United States, 2016,” 2017.

[2] N. J. Wald, M. Simmonds, and J. K. Morris, “Screening for future cardiovascular disease using age alone compared with multiple risk factors and age,” PLoS One, vol. 6, no. 5, p. e18742, 2011.

[3] S. F. Gilbert, “Aging: The Biology of Senescence,” in Developmental Biology., 6th ed., Sunderland (MA), USA: Sinauer Associates, 2000.

[4] H. Kitano, “Biological robustness,” Nat Rev Genet, vol. 5, no. 11, pp. 826–837, 2004.

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