It has been well documented that cognitive function worsens with age, with decline usually beginning around the 4th or 5th decade.
Like so many other capacities that ultimately worsen over time, declining cognition is almost always ascribed to the “aging process.”
Most of us are familiar with term and the concept behind it. Both are so ubiquitous that we take them as a given.
The reality is not at all clear, however.
One, it is not at all clear that declining cognition with age is an inevitable property of human brains.
It is also not at all clear that there is such a thing as an “aging process.” More on what I mean by this in future installments.
Suffice to say that, having dug deeper into the world of aging research for a bit, I’ve been alarmed by the shakiness of the foundation. And by some basic but dubious assumptions that have been made that, if untrue, undermine a huge body of the research here.
To be fair, there seem to be others in this field who agree that things have gone astray, though they appear to be in the minority. It’s possible that they represent a silent majority, as those whose research nurtures our fantasies for an anti-aging pill receive the lion’s share of media attention and funding.
And that fantasy is nurtured by the idea of a single, molecularly-mediated “aging process.” Like Fox Mulder, we all want to believe.
Confirmation bias is a powerful thing.
Why does this matter? Because if we’re going to make headway in prolonging human life and healthspan, it’s crucial that we ask the right questions.
In my own attempts over the last year to sort all of this out in my own mind, I’ve come upon my own set of guiding principles, or maxims, around the concept of aging, and will be sharing those in coming posts.
As a preview, here are some of the current assumptions I find suspect:
- Slowing the aging process will prolong human lifespan.
- Aging is a distinct physiological process.
- Lifespan differences across species are an accurate proxy for differential rates of aging.
- Studying aging in animals in captivity can be extrapolated to animals in the wild.