Growing Old Brings Frailty and Illness. Unless You’re a Lobster

I look at my being alive as one instance of the larger wonder of organic life. Over millions of years, cells and plants and animals have come to life anew and functioned for as long as needed to create offspring. Gradually, features that give the individual and thus the species the best odds for continuity are honed. I am part of that long sequence and I see my being alive now, my body, my membership in a society and culture, and my eventual death in that context.

But what about my aging—senescence? The wrinkling and weakening, the deteriorating of knees, hearing, muscle, brain, and heart? Where do such changes fit in? Perhaps because I’m going through them at age 73, it’s sometimes difficult not to see such decline as pointless. The certainty of death is hard enough; aging as a prelude can feel demeaning.

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I think this way even though I know that different species live and die in many different ways. Some plants live one year, others come back every season. Bacteria clone themselves and don’t die from age but from hostile organisms and conditions in their environment. Seabirds age very slowly; as long as they can fly, they can usually avoid predators.  Lobsters don’t age; they can continue to grow and remain fertile for 45 years or more in the wild, dying only when they can no longer molt and grow a larger shell.

The causes of aging are complex and difficult to study definitively. Wikipedia’s “Senescence” introduces the range of theories and uncertainties. The approach that catches my attention the most is the study of aging in terms of natural selection and evolution. Here are three highlights that have struck me.

One is that certain harmful genetic mutations switch on later in life after an organism’s reproductive period has ended—many cancers, for example, in humans. Because they don’t impact the number or health of the offspring, such genes do no harm to the persistence of the species and so they are unlikely to be lost over the generations. The diseases of the elderly get passed along by the young.

Even more unfortunately, some mechanisms in our bodies boost our health when we’re young and then come back to bite us when we get older. Digesting calcium, for instance, builds strong bones early on but helps clog and stiffen arteries decades later. As long as such a function improves our fitness to make and raise babies, whatever damage it does later on doesn’t matter much in the very long run.

A third way in which selection seems indifferent to the pains of aging is partly statistical: even if natural selection did reduce the ravages of aging and prolong the fertile period, such organisms would nevertheless decline in numbers from accidents or predators as the years pass. The body invests its resources where they are the most effective for the future, in youth and early reproduction, not in a comfortable old age.

In these ways and others, aging apparently takes its cue from the importance of reproduction and from the danger of predators and other external forces. For primates, including me, we reproduce early because the big cats—leopards, jaguars, cougars, tigers—stalked us for millions of years in the forests and grass lands. And for most other species as well, reproduction early in the parents’ lives is the safest bet for species continuity. Still, the exceptions are fascinating. Lobsters in their suit of armor run little risk from ancient predators, so they can reproduce throughout their lives without ever aging into genetic irrelevance.

So. Does my basic and imperfect understanding of all this alter how I experience my weakening muscles, my declining sexuality, my distracted thinking, my reduced sense of taste? To an extent, yes it does. It’s the sense of pointlessness, of feeling disposed of by nature despite all its power to change things, that makes aging harder to bear. Knowing that the decline has its own place, though a melancholy one, in the organic pragmatism that brought me to being in the first place in some consolation.


4 thoughts on “Growing Old Brings Frailty and Illness. Unless You’re a Lobster

  1. Although my body is showing some signs of aging, my spirit feels younger than ever. I want to stay alive as long as possible to try to connect more with the Ground of Being and less with the ego. I am fortunate to have a favorable incarnation–so I want to make the most of it.

  2. Hi Myrna. Thanks. I’m thinking about what common ground there might be between our different views without minimizing that difference. Perhaps the commonality is only the obvious one, the desire to connect with what we believe is larger and more enduring than us. And the sense of affirmation that that connection brings.

  3. Perhaps aging is the other side of growing.
    Birth, development, maturity, decline, death stages not always acheived by many. How rare to be born, to be born a human, in this timeframe , and for some of us, to be born into a place of security. Since life feeds on life, I don’t always feel comfortable with the exchange. I eat living things, they eat us. Thus aging feels more like a gift of survival. Losing one’s powers and facilities is perhaps akin to seasons. Some are a sprouting spring, some a thriving summer, some a fading fall, some a dead winter. Being senescent, I muse at all the other ages- mewling babies, jittery adolecents, ecstatic lovers, wheel chaired elders and the towering dead. In the crowd is all humanity. Mutated in our differences. Destined in our demise. Unlike many, I find no spirit separate from protoplasm. I prefer it this way. I embrace my biology and its impermanence. To be and to not to be is enough. Decline is uncomfortable. So is early death or a life of horrors. The wild idea that we even exist in a hostile universe might be recompense enough.

    • Thank you so much for this, Mark. “Aging feels more like a gift of survival.” A powerful reframing that I’ll try to keep in mind, Darwin-oriented as I am. In the same vein, the idioms shared when seniors check in with each other on how they are faring, carry weight: “I’m above ground and breathing,” “it’s better than the alternative.” Survival. Although when pain is chronic, “the alternative” may look better.

      The seasons are similar to our stages of life in some ways and not in others, it seems to me. The big difference is that the seasons are a cycle, and we are not. Imagine that somehow the planet will come to an end at some point in December, and we all knew it. In such a case, autumn would be a colorful, shriveling horror show. And perhaps the climate crisis makes such a scenario less than fiction. I was just reading a reference to Earth at this rate becoming uninhabitable for humans in 250-300 years.

      Meanwhile, thanks again.



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