An Old Age Old Problem

The summer is hanging on, giving us wonderful weather to take us to the equinox, so we are lucky enough to hang on to this year a little longer. Aging seems farther away in the sunshine compared to the chill weather when joints start aching and the heavy clothes come out. Although we fight it with regular exercise and watching what we eat, we can still sense the dogs snapping at our heels.

At first sight aging seems to be contra-predicted in terms of evolutionary advantage. This is a view, which many seem to subscribe to, but a theoretical paper by Martins from the École Polytechnique in Palaisleau comes to a different conclusion (1). He used a computer simulation to compare populations who didn’t age but just succumbed to accidents with populations where senescence reduced the population in addition to unfortunate events.

The simulations were idealized in that the non-aging population could carry on living and reproducing until some unfortunate event caught up with them. Those with a sell-by-date in addition to their random world events did worse at first but in the long run they flourished. The non-ageing population became extinct.

This counter-intuitive result of the eventual demise of the Greek god-like race was due to the environmental changes, which, over time, make them less and less fit for the world that they are trying to keep up with.  Those with sell-by-dates shuffle off the scene but are replaced more frequently with a population which have random mutations, some of which will be favorable.

The key is the rapid turnover allows the population to adapt to global changes in contrast to the slower turnover of the non-aging population, which finds itself out of date, and not doing well in coping with the new environment.

Doesn’t this sound reminiscent of the management gurus when they swoop into corporations and restructure? Or perhaps it reminds you of young geeks like Mr. Zuckerberg who told us last year that the age of privacy is over (2)? Mount Olympus is not such a good address after all.


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