They say aging is one of the only certain things in life. But it turns out they were wrong. In recent years, gerontologists have overturned much of the conventional wisdom about getting old. Aging is not the simple result of the passage of time. According to a provocative new view, it is actually something our own bodies create, a side effect of the essential inflammatory system that protects us against infectious disease. As we fight off invaders, we inflict massive collateral damage on ourselves, poisoning our own organs and breaking down our own tissues. We are our own worst enemy. This paradox is transforming the way we understand aging. It is also changing our understanding of what diseases are and where they come from. Inflammation seems to underlie not just senescence but all the chronic illnesses that often come along with it: diabetes, atherosclerosis, Alzheimer’s, heart attack. The idea that chronic diseases might be caused by persistent inflammation has been kicking around since the 19th century. Only in the past few years, though, have modern biochemistry and the emerging field of systems biology made it possible to grasp the convoluted chemical interactions involved in bodywide responses like inflammation.
When you start to think about aging as a consequence of inflammation, you start to see old age in a different, much more hopeful light. If decrepitude is driven by an overactive immune system, then it is treatable. And if many chronic diseases share this underlying cause, they might all be remedied in a similar way. The right anti-inflammatory drug could be a panacea, treating diabetes, dementia, heart disease, and even cancer. Such a wonder drug might allow us to live longer, but more to the point, it would almost surely allow us to live better, increasing the odds that we could all spend our old age feeling like Jim Hammond: healthy, vibrant, and vital. And unlike science fiction visions of an immortality pill, a successful anti-inflammatory treatment could actually happen within our lifetime.