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Opinion: We need to take steps toward building a consensus definition of biological aging

A confident answer to the question "What is biological aging?" in humans will help us ensure that complexity does not hide any magical mysteries.

I’ve been committed to understanding the biology of aging since I was a teenager, and my education and career took aim at this problem from many angles. One aspect that still perplexes me is that there isn’t a good, easily communicable answer to this simple question: What is biological aging?

When it comes to biological aging research or, to use a fancier term, translational geroscience, scientists finally have a pretty good understanding of the major components of aging. But there’s no consensus definition of it that consolidates the existing framework.

Why do we need such a definition of biological aging? A good definition can grab the essential characteristics of an entity and put them to good use. Two examples illustrate this.

Here is an example from medicine,: “Cancer is a catch-all term used to denote a set of diseases characterized by autonomous expansion and spread of a somatic clone.” That is a more exact way of saying, “Cancer is a disease caused by uncontrolled division of abnormal cells.” This definition captures the universal mechanism behind all cancers. As such, it also offers therapeutic options. No matter how diverse cancers get, keeping them under one umbrella is easier compared to the broad-spectrum of biological aging.

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