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Can aging be programmed? A critical literature review

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Axel Kowald, Emeritus Professor Thomas Kirkwood



This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC BY 4.0).


The evolution of the aging process has long been a biological riddle, because it is difficult to explain the evolution of a trait that has apparently no benefit to the individual. Over 60 years ago, Medawar realized that the force of natural selection declines with chronological age because of unavoidable environmental risks. This forms the basis of the mainstream view that aging arises as a consequence of a declining selection pressure to maintain the physiological functioning of living beings forever. Over recent years, however, a number of articles have appeared that nevertheless propose the existence of specific aging genes; that is, that the aging process is genetically programmed. If this view were correct, it would have serious implications for experiments to understand and postpone aging. Therefore, we studied in detail various specific proposals why aging should be programmed. We find that not a single one withstands close scrutiny of its assumptions or simulation results. Nonprogrammed aging theories based on the insight of Medawar (as further developed by Hamilton and Charlesworth) are still the best explanation for the evolution of the aging process. We hope that this analysis helps to clarify the problems associated with the idea of programmed aging.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Kowald A, Kirkwood TBL

Publication type: Review

Publication status: Published

Journal: Aging Cell

Year: 2016

Volume: 15

Issue: 6

Pages: 986-998

Print publication date: 01/12/2016

Online publication date: 17/08/2016

Acceptance date: 05/07/2016

ISSN (print): 1474-9718

ISSN (electronic): 1474-9726



DOI: 10.1111/acel.12510