Living fast, dying when? The link between aging and energetics

J R Speakman, C Selman, J S McLaren, E J Harper

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168 Citations (Scopus)


The idea that aging should be linked to energy expenditure has a long history that can be traced to the late 1800s and the industrial revolution. Machines that are run fast wear out more quickly, so the notion was born that humans and animals might experience similar fates: the faster they live (expressed as greater energy expenditure), the sooner they die. Evidence supporting the "rate-of-living" theory was gleaned from the scaling of resting metabolism and life span as functions of body mass. The product of these factors yields a mass-invariant term, equivalent to the "amount of living." There are at least four problems with this evidence, which are summarized and reviewed in this communication: 1) life span is a poor measure of aging, 2) resting metabolism is a poor measure of energy expenditure, 3) the effects are confounded by body mass and 4) the comparisons made are not phylogenetically independent. We demonstrate that there is a poor association between resting metabolic rate (RMR) and daily energy expenditure (DEE) measured using the doubly labeled water (DLW) method at the level of species. Nevertheless, the scaling relation between DEE and body mass still has the same scaling exponent as the RMR and body mass relationship. Thus, if we use DEE rather than RMR in the analysis, the rate-of-living ideas are still supported. Data for 13 species of small mammal were obtained, where energy demands by DLW and longevity were reliably known. In these species, there was a strong negative relationship between residual longevity and residual DEE, both with the effects of body mass removed (r(2) = 0.763, F = 32.1, P < 0.001). Hence, the association of energy demands and life span is not attributed to the confounding effects of body size. We subjected these latter data to an analysis that extracts phylogenetically independent contrasts, and the relationship remained significant (r(2) = 0.815, F = 39.74, P < 0.001). Small mammals that live fast really do die young. However, there are very large differences between species in the amounts of living that each enjoy and these disparities are even greater when other taxa are included in the comparisons. Such differences are incompatible with the "rate-of-living" theory. However, the link between energetics and aging across species is reconcilable within the framework of the "free-radical damage hypothesis" and the "disposable soma hypothesis." Within species one might anticipate the rate-of-living model would be more appropriate. We reviewed data generated from three different sources to evaluate whether this were so, studies in which metabolic rate is experimentally increased and impacts on life span followed, studies of caloric restriction and studies where links between natural variation in metabolism and life span are sought. This review reveals that there might be contrasting effects of resting and nonresting energy expenditure on aging, with increases in the former being protective and increases in the latter being harmful.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages15
JournalThe Journal of Nutrition
Publication statusPublished - 2002


  • metabolic rate
  • body mass
  • aging
  • survival
  • energetics
  • doubly labeled water
  • phylogenetics


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