Nexus Blog

Aging

Editor: Lars van Broekhuijsen, Structures of Strength (SoS)

March 13, 2024

Recently, NOS highlighted a significant increase in beauty products usage among young children (Jeugdjournaal, 2024). These kids, typically aged between 8 and 12 years old, are increasingly concerned about skin aging despite their youthful resilience to environmental and emotional stressors. This observation underscores the beauty industry’s success in marketing anti-aging products, capitalizing on the widespread desire to maintain a youthful appearance and portraying aging as something to be avoided at all costs. Conversely, a different perspective emerges when we turn our gaze to the world of fine wine. For instance, the value of Clerc Milon wine from southwest France measurably increases as it ages, depicted in Graph 1 (WineQuan, 2016).

Graph 1, WineQuant, 2016

This brings us to a fundamental question: How do we perceive the value of aging, and what implications does it hold for the composition of porous materials? Notably, porous materials of all kind also undergo aging. To explore this intriguing inquiry, we call on professionals from different fields within Structures of Strength (SoS) to share their expertise and perspectives on this subject.

A Chemistry perspective

The Yale Beinecke Library in the US safeguards some of the world’s most significant literary treasures, including an original Gutenberg Bible dating back to 1452-1455. To protect these books the library has put state of the art systems in place to control the conditions within the library (Usatoday, 2021). Why do these centuries-old books require such extraordinary precautions?

Dr. M. Smulders, an expert in organic chemistry, provides insight into the aging process from a material chemistry perspective.

“Ageing is almost always considered as an unwanted deterioration of material properties, and this decline in material performance – whether it’s the activity of a porous membrane or a catalyst particle – can occur on widely varying time scales, from minutes to years. To me, ‘aging’ here is practically synonymous to ‘deteriorating’.”

In the case of century-old books, the pieces of paper have been affected by the passing of time. Paper is made of cellulose, a repeating chain of glucose molecules. The longer the cellulose chains, the stronger, more flexible, and durable the paper is (loc.gov). Moisture, acids from the environment cut these chains thus shortening them and deteriorating the material over time. As Smulders denotes, ageing is the decline of the material’s properties and its performance. Thus, extraordinary measures are taken to decelerate this process, ensuring the longevity of books’ functionality.

Further elaborating on the topic, Dr. Smulders remarks, “If an effect/property has a certain time-dependent quality, which does not result in breakdown of material properties, other terms are typically used: equilibration, annealing, curing. He suggests that these processes can be viewed as forms of aging that lack its traditionally negative associations.

A Geoscience perspective

From a geoscience perspective, the phenomenon of porosity is not only prevalent in man-made materials but is also a natural occurrence. It is observed from the surface layers of soil, where water infiltrates the earth, to the profound depths beneath.

Dr. Amir Raoof, a hydrogeology specialist, encourages adopting a wider lens on time. He notes, “Aging within porous media is not merely a process of degradation but also encompasses the genesis of new substances. Spanning millions of years, the conversion of ocean floor plankton into oil, a process that occurred between 252 and 66 million years ago under sedimentary burial and anaerobic conditions, serves as a testament to aging’s role as a catalyst for transformation.”

In the domain of geosciences, we also consulted E. Mulder, an MSc student at Utrecht University specializing in paleontology—a field dedicated to the study of life’s ancient remains.

Mulder explains, “Aging is inherently linked to the concept of preservation, encompassing all changes a once-living organism undergoes post-mortem.” He elaborates, “As geological processes commence, the original characteristics of biological remains, such as bones, teeth, keratin, and shells, undergo modifications. This transformation significantly impacts the porosity of these materials, influenced by mineral dissolution or deposition throughout their entombment and exhumation.” Mulder emphasizes, “Porosity varies with the material,” highlighting the nuanced interplay between taphonomy and porosity, which defies a universal explanation.

A Biological perspective

Turning to the biological implications of aging, Dr. P. Behrouzi, an expert in plant science, genetics, and computational biology, illuminates the subtle differences between various aging forms.

She notes, “Commonly, ‘age’ is equated with chronological age,” pointing out that this standard measure merely captures the flow of time, neglecting individual aging variances. Dr. Behrouzi contends, “Chronological age fails to capture the essence of the aging process,” thus, she advocates for a broader perspective. She introduces the concept of biological age, defining it as “a measure of health status, functional capacity, and disease vulnerability,” going beyond simple chronological tallying. Dr. Behrouzi highlights, “Biological age can encompass a range of factors beyond mere time, such as genetics, lifestyle choices, and environmental interactions,” asserting its superiority as an aging metric.

Dr. Vercoulen, specializing in tissue immune regulation in cancer and inflammatory diseases, delves into the nature of aging. She remarks, “Aging is an inherent aspect of life, with humanity approaching its longevity limits. The pursuit of eternal life is not only unrealistic but also undesirable from an evolutionary standpoint, potentially hindering species adaptation.” She supports the notion of healthy aging, emphasizing, “Our goal is to ensure a high quality of life for as long as feasible, in a manner that’s sustainable for society.”

According to Dr. Vercoulen, “Preventative health measures, a wholesome lifestyle, and early disease detection are fundamental.” She also underlines the critical role of diet and genetics in health maintenance, stating, “The gut plays a crucial role in our health—echoing the motto ‘we are what we eat’—with our diet, genetic makeup, and immune system’s response to pathogens and tumors significantly shaping our wellbeing.”

Expanding on the discussion, Dr. Behrouzi explores aging within the body, specifically in the gut: “Within the intestinal mucus layer, the aging pace varies among different structures and cells, making ‘young’ and ‘old’ relative terms. Remarkably, the intestinal epithelium regenerates every 24 hours.”She is particularly impressed by this rapid renewal process. “Conversely, the stem cells residing in the intestinal crypts may endure for nearly an entire lifetime. Although they divide continually, their location within the crypts renders them among the intestine’s oldest elements.”

To conclude, the interpretation of aging is profoundly diverse across disciplines, illustrating that aging need not carry a universally negative connotation. Though often linked to a decline in function or property—an outcome typically viewed as undesirable—aging encompasses a broad spectrum of meanings and implications. Beyond the straightforward metric of chronological age, we introduce the more dynamic concept of biological age, which reflects the variegated pace of aging processes within the body, influenced by factors such as gut health and dietary choices.

Importantly, these varied perspectives on aging and its multifaceted characterizations across different fields open doors for interdisciplinary collaboration. At Structures of Strength (SoS), leveraging these diverse views allows us to create links between methods and concepts from various disciplines, enhancing our research, development, and innovation efforts. The diverse ways aging and porous materials are understood across fields underscore the opportunities for cross-disciplinary learning and collaboration. This approach enables us to explore additional aspects of aging and refine our measurement methods within our own discipline. Adopting a more holistic view not only expands our understanding but also paves the way for innovative applications of these insights within interdisciplinary frameworks.

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