New England Complex Systems Institute

Complex Systems Fundamentals

An Intensive Course

October 4-8, 1999 Boston Area


Aging and Complex Systems: Motivation

As the baby-boom generation rapidly approaches age 65 in the next decade, the mechanisms and clinical consequences of the aging process are becoming a central focus of scientific investigation. The study of aging is particularly appropriate for complex systems analysis. While medicine is generally focused on failure of individual organs or specific diseases, the aging process is a systemic one resulting from changes in multiple subsystems affecting overall system structure, dynamic response, adaptation and function. The physical degradation of non-equilibrium biological structures result in reduced fine scale complexity of structure and changes in dynamic response. Moreover, primary system failures result from prior changes in interrelated repair, regulatory, homeostatic and adaptive mechanisms.

For example, in research on aging, complex systems concepts can be applied to the analysis of temporal behavior of heart rate dynamics and other physiologic time series reflecting aging induced changes in dynamic response, as well as structural changes in the fine scale structure of neural systems and bone tissue. Additional areas of application include experimental and theoretical studies that can elucidate the relationship between the structural and dynamic changes, and how these changes lead to disease and disability.

In addition, the role of environmental and social factors in aging can be examined through various methods and concepts which have been developed in the general study of complex systems. Particularly relevant is the interaction of behavior, and physical and social environment in system maintenance and repair where research indicates that active individuals in stimulating (appropriately complex) environments can maintain high levels of function. Research on human aging will demonstrate how complex system approaches can be effectively applied both to understand and to prevent or alleviate processes of system deterioration, which is an important area of study for all complex systems.