Cells in the body don't keep dividing forever but reach a state known as cellular senescence in which they no longer divide but release substances that damage adjacent cells, scientists at the Mayo Clinic said.
The immune system normally disposes of the zombie cells but with aging gradually loses its ability to do so, they said.
"By attacking these cells and what they produce, one day we may be able to break the link between aging mechanisms and predisposition to diseases like heart disease, stroke, cancers and dementia," Dr. James Kirkland, a co-author of the study, said in a statement.
Researchers say eliminating senescent cells could delay the onset of cataracts, the gradual loss of muscle tissue and other aging-related problems, CBS News reported Thursday.
"Therapeutic interventions to get rid of senescent cells or block their effects may represent an avenue to make us feel more vital, healthier, and allow us to stay independent for a much longer time," Dr. Jan van Deursen, a study co-author, said in the statement.
The research suggests it may be possible to develop drugs that would kill senescent cells in humans or improve an aging immune system's ability to dispose of them, the researchers said.