You can assume quite a bit about the state of a used car just from its mileage and model year. The wear and tear of heavy driving and the passage of time will have taken an inevitable toll. The same appears to be true of aging in people, but the analogy is flawed because of a crucial difference between inanimate machines and living creatures: deterioration is not inexorable in biological systems, which can respond to their environments and use their own energy to defend and repair themselves.
At one time, scientists believed aging to be not just deterioration but an active continuation of an organism’s genetically programmed development. Once an individual achieved maturity, “aging genes” began to direct its progress toward the grave. This idea has been discredited, and conventional wisdom now holds that aging really is just wearing out over time because the body’s normal maintenance and repair mechanisms simply wane. Evolutionary natural selection, the logic goes, has no reason to keep them working once an organism has passed its reproductive age.
Yet we and other researchers have found that a family of genes involved in an organism’s ability to withstand a stressful environment, such as excessive heat or scarcity of food or water, have the power to keep its natural defense and repair activities going strong regardless of age. By optimizing the body’s functioning for survival, these genes maximize the individual’s chances of getting through the crisis. And if they remain activated long enough, they can also dramatically enhance the organism’s health and extend its life span. In essence, they represent the opposite of aging genes–longevity genes.