Autophagy is a process of lysosome-dependent intracellular degradation that participates in the liberation of resources including amino acids and energy to maintain homoeostasis. Autophagy is particularly important in stress conditions such as nutrient starvation and any perturbation in the ability of the cell to activate or regulate autophagy can lead to cellular dysfunction and disease. An area of intense research interest is the role and indeed the fate of autophagy during cellular and organismal ageing. Age-related disorders are associated with increased cellular stress and assault including DNA damage, reduced energy availability, protein aggregation and accumulation of damaged organelles. A reduction in autophagy activity has been observed in a number of ageing models and its up-regulation via pharmacological and genetic methods can alleviate age-related pathologies. In particular, autophagy induction can enhance clearance of toxic intracellular waste associated with neurodegenerative diseases and has been comprehensively demonstrated to improve lifespan in yeast, worms, flies, rodents and primates. The situation, however, has been complicated by the identification that autophagy up-regulation can also occur during ageing. Indeed, in certain situations, reduced autophagosome induction may actually provide benefits to ageing cells. Future studies will undoubtedly improve our understanding of exactly how the multiple signals that are integrated to control appropriate autophagy activity change during ageing, what affect this has on autophagy and to what extent autophagy contributes to age-associated pathologies. Identification of mechanisms that influence a healthy lifespan is of economic, medical and social importance in our ‘ageing’ world.

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