In these years we stand at the crossroads for human longevity. A long, slow, and largely unintentional upward trend in health and life expectancy has been running for near two hundred years now, caused by increases in wealth and technological progress, each driving the other. Increased longevity in turn helps to increase wealth and speed progress: all of these benefits are individually but facets of the whole gem.
The medical science of the past has blossomed into full-bored biotechnology, and change and growth in this field has become exceptionally rapid over the past twenty years, mirroring progress in computing hardware and software development. Scientists can now individually carry out tasks in a few months that would have required an entire laboratory staff and years of labor in the early 1990s, if it even possible at all back then. Many researchers advocate that now is the time to approach aging as the medical condition it is, to stop treating it with religious awe, as though it were some mystical thing that stands outside of the rest of medicine, and use the tools we have to make it go away.
Some of these researchers are engaged in a form of networked disruptive innovation within aging research that they hope will eventually displace the present mainstream. This is how progress happens in human organizations: the heretics agitate and prove themselves correct via research and development until such time as the old mainstream gives in and agrees that they were right all along.
That is the high road ahead from the crossroads. Upon this road the research community abandons its reluctance to treat aging, the public comes to think of aging in the same way as they presently think of cancer, research funding flows, and great progress is made towards means of halting and reversing the underlying causes of aging. Age-related diseases start to become things of the past, like widespread cholera and tuberculosis, just a few decades past this turning point.
But there are other roads ahead. Disruptive movements don't always win in their first spin around the block. The old guard can last for decades past their time, poisoning the well and ensuring that progress remains slow. Regulation can also suppress new paradigms, and indeed entire fields of human endeavor, for decades at a time - and medical development certain does not lack for obstructive bureaucracy. The treatment of aging is actually forbidden in the US by regulatory fiat, and there is no effective path towards gaining approval for the commercial application of potential therapy to intervene in the causes of aging. This is well known and the chilling effect percolates all the way back up the chain of research and development to create difficulties in fundraising for such goals.
So there are low roads to either side away from the crossroads. These are largely the ruts of status quo and slow progress in which billions of dollars continue to go towards research that increases our knowledge of the details of the molecular dance that is aging, but which can offer no plausible hope or promise of significantly extending life soon enough to matter to us. Life spans continue to edge upward, but we all die just a little older than our parents, and suffer all of the same age-related conditions, just a little less painfully. It is the road on which the study of aging for the sake of knowledge rather than action continues to dominate, and in which the public continues to be largely disinterested in extended healthy life or avoidance of the diseases of aging: marching towards death in their tens of millions, but never raising a hand to do anything about it.
This possibility is why advocacy for the better options in longevity science and human rejuvenation must exist. Without disruptive change in the public perception of aging and medicine for aging, without disruptive change in the attitudes of the scientific community, then the status quo is what we will get - and it will let us die by failing to take full advantage of all that can be done in this age of biotechnology.
The paper quoted below is a joint effort by Jan Vijg and Aubrey de Grey, both scientists who see the potential for big changes to the field in the years ahead and would like to see those changes come about. It isn't open access, unfortunately, but the abstract is a good encapsulation of the crossroads we presently find ourselves at.
Innovating Aging: Promises and Pitfalls on the Road to Life Extension
One of the main benefits of the dramatic technological progress over the last two centuries is the enormous increase in human life expectancy, which has now reached record highs. After conquering most childhood diseases and a fair fraction of the diseases that plague adulthood, medical technology is now mainly preoccupied by age-related disorders. Further progress is dependent on circumventing the traditional medical focus on individual diseases and instead targeting aging as a whole as the ultimate cause of the health problems that affect humankind at old age.
In principle, a major effort to control the gradual accumulation of molecular and cellular damage - considered by many as the ultimate cause of intrinsic aging - may rapidly lead to interventions for regenerating aged and worn-out tissues and organs. While considered impossible by many, there really is no reason to reject this as scientifically implausible. However, as we posit, it is not only scientific progress that is currently a limiting factor, but societal factors that hinder and may ultimately prevent further progress in testing and adopting the many possible interventions to cure aging.