The marginalization of anti-aging research is our most shameful humanitarian failure.
Aging is a hot topic among the chattering classes these days. What with biotech companies like Calico and Human Longevity Inc. being founded with the mission to defeat aging, and venerable institutions such as Prudential proclaiming the imminence of superlongevity on billboards, there’s no denying that this is a time of great interest in our oldest and deepest-held dream — to escape from the tyranny of inexorable and ultimately fatal physiological decline.
But hang on — is the buzz around aging really reflective of what’s being done to realize this goal? The briefest dispassionate analysis reveals a different story altogether. The proportion of government spending allocated in the industrialized world to diseases and disabilities of old age is appropriately high, but it is overwhelmingly dedicated to the transparently quixotic approach of attacking those ailments directly — as if they were infections — rather than attacking their lifelong accumulating causes.
The latter approach is the focus of biomedical gerontology. Researchers in this field recognize that any direct attack on late-life disease is doomed to become progressively less effective as the causes of those diseases continue to accumulate, so they focus instead on those causes — the “damage” that the body inflicts on itself throughout life in the course of its everyday operation. But they comprise a tiny coterie of scientists — far too few, and with access to far too little funding, to allow progress to occur at anywhere near the maximum rate that the simple technical difficulty of the problem would allow.
I believe that the main reason for this tragic myopia is a phobia about aging that is so ancient and deep-seated that it overpowers the rationality of nearly all of us, even the most intelligent and educated. Aging holds us in a psychological stranglehold, preventing us from even contemplating the idea of its medical conquest. We have been brought up to make our peace with our inevitable decline following middle age. And the last thing that people who have made their peace with a tragic future want to do is reopen the old battle scars.
Thus it is that grown adults find it possible to argue that we should forever continue to let everyone endure the number one cause of human suffering, because the alternative would be — wait for it — that we might need to have fewer babies than we would ideally like, or that dictators might live forever (what proportion of dictators die of aging?), or that life might become boring, or a litany of similarly bewildering inanities. And unfortunately for us — by which I mean, for the whole of humanity — those adults include the overwhelming majority of the people who control enough money (whether their own, their company’s or the taxpayer’s) to make a difference.
When confronted with the moral repugnance of this attitude, some of those who hold it fall back on the case against the mutability of aging. Since the defeat of aging is as impossible as the creation of perpetual motion, they say, it doesn’t matter whether it would be good or bad. The problem is that those same people all too often simultaneously adopt the converse position — that since defeating aging would be a bad idea, it doesn’t matter whether it’s possible. Thereby, they ever so neatly deflect each of the two questions by deciding on the answer to the other. And they do it with a straight face.
So what do experts actually say about the feasibility of bringing aging under medical control? I have for some time been at the optimistic edge of expert opinion on this matter, on the basis of a proposed approach to the problem that most of my colleagues initially found incongruous and are only in recent years coming to appreciate. But even without getting into the debate about what approaches to this challenge are the most promising, one can no longer escape the fact that most biomedical gerontologists now agree that we are approaching a time of sharply accelerated progress in extending healthy lifespan.
Except, of course, by letting that expert opinion go in one ear and out the other. And that, I’m afraid to say, is what most decision-makers are still doing. But those few visionaries who see beyond this — who get the message that a transformation greater than the Industrial Revolution is coming soon — will benefit astronomically when it indeed comes, even when it becomes widely anticipated. Now is the time for companies with that kind of vision to act on it.
The opportunities and challenges presented by innovations in studies of the aging process are featured in the fourth episode of the Breakthrough documentary series, “The Age of Aging,” directed by Ron Howard. The six-part series, developed by GE and the National Geographic Channel, airs Sundays at 9pm ET on the NatGeo Channel.
(Top image: Prague Astronomic Clock, Getty Images)