W

hy do we get old and die? It’s one of the biggest questions in life. And the answer might someday change the practice of medicine. Instead of treating one disease or another, doctors might instead treat aging itself. While that approach might not lead to immortality, it could potentially allow people to trade weak, frail old age for vigorous golden years.

As important as the question is, it’s enormously hard to answer. That’s because it demands a lot of data. Scientists can pore over death records, but those won’t reveal what kind of genetic influences caused someone to die young, or what childhood secret allowed another to live to a ripe old age.

Watch more: Scientists are building mini-brains to understand the human mind

Fortunately, our course of aging isn’t radically different from that of other species. So scientists have turned to animals to understand the aging process.

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For my latest episode of “Science Happens,” I pay a visit to an extraordinary experiment in aging called the Lifespan Machine. It was created by Nicholas Stroustrup, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School. Stroustrup and his colleagues study tiny worms that only live a few weeks at most. By observing thousands of genetically identical worms live out their entire lives in precisely the same conditions, Stroustrup is discovering universal rules of aging — rules that might help explain our own decline, too.

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This story was originally posted Feb. 2, 2016.

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