Reel Science

The most miraculous sci-fi movie on Netflix reveals a scientific debate over aging

Is it really possible to stop aging, as The Age of Adaline suggests?

Every time a new gray hair pops up or a pain in our back aches, we’re reminded that our bodies are aging. One day, we will die.

But for one woman, that day may never come. Her name is Adaline Bowman, and she’s 107 years old. Yet, she doesn’t look a day older than 29 — the age when she died in a car accident only to come back to life.

Adaline’s mysterious body, which never ages, anchors the sweeping sci-fi romance, The Age of Adaline. But for Adaline, eternal youth is more of a curse than a blessing, forcing her into a lonely life of isolation — until she falls in love with a charming young man.

This sci-fi concept might just seem like Hollywood fantasy, but is there any truth to the idea that you could just.. stop growing old?

Reel Science is an Inverse series that reveals the real (and fake) science behind your favorite movies and TV.

What does it mean to age?

Aging isn’t as simple as you might think. Matthew Yousefzadeh, research assistant professor at the Niedernhofer Laboratory’s Institute on the Biology of Aging and Metabolism, breaks down the two ways we typically define age.

First, there is your chronological age, or how long you’ve been on planet Earth. Another way to think about chronological age is the number that appears on your driver’s license. In Adaline’s case, her chronological age is 107, though since she uses forged identity documents, her license always reads as 29 — the age at which her body stopped growing older.

“Adaline Bowman will henceforth be immune to the ravages of time. She will never age another day,” says the movie’s narrator.

Adaline hasn’t stopped aging chronologically — she’s still technically a centenarian. Yet she has stopped aging biologically. Biological age is a second way that experts in the field talk about aging. Your biological age isn’t necessarily an exact number, but a broader assessment of your body’s physiological functions, gene activity, and increased risk of diseases — all of which change as you grow older.

In The Age of Adaline, the protagonist — born in 1908 — stops aging following a car accident when she’s 29. She lives through numerous wars and periods in American history while never growing old. Lionsgate Films

But not everyone ages at the same rate. Two people can be the same chronological age while their bodies have aged differently. Genetics, lifestyle, and environment play a role in how each person ages.

“There's a 50-year-old or 60-year-old year person about to die then there's Brad Pitt, you know? So, you kind of have the different ends of the spectrum,” Yousefzadeh says. (Brad Pitt is 58, in case you’re wondering.)

Another way to look at aging is through the “lifespan” versus “healthspan” framework. Lifespan refers to how long a person lives, whereas Yousefzadeh describes healthspan as “the period of disease-free survival” in a person’s life. So someone can be 85 years old, but perhaps they got Alzheimer’s at age 70, meaning their healthspan ended at that time. Some experts are hoping we can extend longevity by focusing on reducing the onset of disease.

“There's also a thought process that if we can extend healthspan, maybe that, in effect, will also have some effect on the extension of lifespan,” Yousefzadeh says.

Can you really stop aging?

It’s not possible to reverse aging — yet — but that doesn’t stop people from trying. Some factors, like exercise and diet can help slow the rate of aging, however. Shutterstock

While The Age of Adaline may offer an interesting scientific examination of the aging process, its central conceit — that the body can stop aging — isn’t true in the slightest.

“There is currently nothing that can ‘stop’ aging in an adult human,” Morgan Levine, founding principal investigator of the San Diego Institute of Science at Altos Labs, tells Inverse.

“Reverse” aging only occurs during conception when a sperm and an egg from two adults come together to form a zygote.

“These cells go through an aging reversal process and are ‘reset’ in order to form a brand new organism,” Levine adds.

Yousefzadeh agrees, stating the movie’s main premise is not “viable to our current knowledge, adding “That’s Hollywood — that’s science fiction.”

The movie tries to get around the fact that it’s not currently possible to halt aging by devising a fictional “Von Lehman’s Principle of Electron Compression in deoxyribonucleic acid.” This method will be discovered in the year 2035 and will somehow explain Adaline’s condition, but the movie offers no further explanation beyond a description of the event that occurred at the moment Adaline stopped aging.

“That’s Hollywood — that’s science fiction.”Lionsgate Films

Adaline, then aged 29, gets into a car accident. Her car falls into a body of water, and her heart stops beating. But a fortuitously timed lightning strike gets her heart started again and she emerges, alive, but suddenly stuck in a frozen state of aging.

While the specifics of this event aren’t plausible, the general idea that a significant event can slow down aging is somewhat realistic, “but not to the level of immortality,” Yousefzadeh explains.

Yousefzadeh discusses the biological process of hormesis, in which a mild amount of stress can help activate the body’s antioxidant response, which can help delay aging — to an extent. The antioxidant response refers to the way the body responds to oxidative stress — a phenomenon where the body cannot detoxify certain tissues and cells.

“In experimental animals, mild dietary stress without malnutrition delays most age-related physiological changes, and extends maximum and average lifespan,” write researchers in a 2010 study on hormesis.

But too much stress from a singular event can also speed up aging. In a study published earlier this year, researchers found monkeys that underwent natural disasters experienced accelerated aging of seven years compared to their peers.

The future of aging research

Mice studies are yielding promising results for anti-aging research, but it will take some time to translate those findings to human clinical trials.Getty

Even if you take cosmetic products to reduce the appearance of age markers like wrinkles, you’ll still be aging biologically. You may look forever young like Blake Lively’s Adaline, but that doesn’t mean you’ll stop aging on the inside.

But if we instead ask whether it’s possible to “slow down” the rate of aging — then sure, that’s more probable according to current scientific literature.

“There is evidence that certain behaviors like exercise may slow the rate, but we all age,” Levine says.

There’s a growing field of scientific interest around the concept of “anti-aging” — and it’s a big field, ranging from “biohackers” who are looking for a miracle drug or gene therapy to reverse their own aging process to scientific researchers seeking to delay the onset of age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s.

“The term anti-aging can be problematic, but the concept is actually a good one,” Levine says.

She adds, “When scientists refer to anti-aging, they are referring to finding ways to oppose all the problematic molecular and cellular changes our bodies undergo over our lifetime.”

Most researchers like Levine are not seeking an elixir of life to make everyone forever youthful, but are instead hoping to curb age-related diseases and improve the quality of life for people of an older chronilogical age. Considering the growing older population of countries like the U.S, it’s a highly relevant field of research.

“But, like all fields, there are also snake-oil salesman still lurking about, so be wary if something sounds too good to be true,” Levine says.

Blake Lively and Michiel Huisman in Age of Adaline.Lionsgate Films

Yousefzadeh says a research project known as the TAME trial has yielded evidence that the drug metformin, which many patients with diabetes use, can be used as a therapeutic for aging. Individuals taking metformin lived longer than those that did not. There are also mice studies showing it may possible to delay or reduce signs of aging — such as cognitive decline — but translating those animal trials to humans is tricky.

“However, showing efficacy in mice is often a first step to developing something that may actually save human lives--so there is hope,” Levine says.

These nuanced complexities of anti-aging research are perhaps not easily explored in Hollywood, where youthful beauty is idealized onscreen and older actresses have a hard time finding work due to ageism. Yet, as The Age of Adaline suggests, aging is perhaps not something we should strive to avoid, but embrace full-on. The fact that we grow old, and, inevitably, die is what makes life so precious.

As Adaline tells her daughter, if you can’t grow old together, then “love is just heartbreak.”

The Age of Adaline is now streaming on Netflix.

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