Looking at an Anti-Aging Conference

The American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine (A4M) organizes a number of conferences worldwide on the topic of "anti-aging medicine." As I've remarked on before, there is something of a war on over the use of "anti-aging" in business and scientific circles. The definition used by A4M is explained on the website for their upcoming Singapore conference. This is what you might look at as a doctor-centric view of modern healthy life extension: how, today, to best apply new medical technologies to reduce suffering, cure age-related conditions, and thus extend healthy life span in individuals.

In my previous piece, I pointed out that differences in meaning lie at the heart of arguments over "anti-aging." What is healthy life span? How do you tell if it's being increased? Can we even talk sensibly about anti-aging in the absence of accurate biomarkers for aging? Is curing a fatal age-related disease for a given person "anti-aging" because they will now live longer and in better health? Or does "anti-aging" only refer to treatments for the aging process itself?

The scientific position is that there is no such thing as anti-aging medicine (yet) because anti-aging medicine has to slow or reverse the aging process - and even the measurement of that is up for debate. The pure marketing position is that "anti-aging" is a wonderful brand that makes you money, so it should be added to every possible product. Obviously, there is a fair distance between those two positions! The A4M position would seem to be that preventing and curing age-related degenerative conditions is "anti-aging."

The interconnected nature of modern society, business, and scientific funding makes it harder for everyone to live and let live with their own professional meanings for words; vast sums of money can be invested in brands, trust and reputations related to these words. From the scientific point of view, legitimate research is being belittled by adventurous marketing in the business world. On one of the other sides of the fence, organizations like A4M see legitimate medical work being belittled by conservative scientists.

A little bit of background: A4M and the Life Extension Foundation (LEF) have something of a shared early history, and diverged in their own directions from old school efforts in life extension. Both groups support their forward-looking work with business attachments to older technologies or less relevant businesses, and could be viewed as different paths to the same end. From the 20,000 foot level, A4M is a physicians association and advocacy group that runs conferences, while the LEF is a supplement business and research organization. Both, of course, publish, and I've skipped over many subtleties with that single sentence overview.

Both A4M and the LEF are looked on unfavorably by portions of the health establishment - the FDA has created a history of conflict with the LEF, while mainstream gerontologists fight battles over legitimacy and the meaning of terms with A4M. Within the healthy life extension community, there is a certain amount of partisanship over past history, events, divisions and politics. This is all par for the course, and A4M and the LEF have their share to be going along with.

But back to conferences. A fair number of folks in the scientific aging research community don't like A4M. If you ask them why, the A4M conferences are singled out as a cause. Scientists don't like the fact that the less reputable "anti-aging" business community - i.e. pills, potions, and adventurous marketing alongside potentially serious ventures - attend these conferences. It's taint by association. If you look at the structure of the 2004 Singapore conference, it's divided between the scientific or medical speakers and workshops and the wider community of exhibitors from the "anti-aging" marketplace.

So why hurt your scientific credibility by inviting the more dubious business community at all? Why not run a purely scientific and medical conference like the recent one in Sydney? The short answer is that conferences are enormously expensive; the Sydney International Conference on Longevity was paid for by two philanthropists, and it cost them more than a million dollars. From my limited interactions with folks at A4M, I think they see the open nature of vendor exhibitions as something of a necessary evil. Some of these vendors have good, useful products but many of them don't. They do, however, support the cost of the conference.

As a last note, contributer and Methuselah Foundation co-founder Aubrey de Grey - a biogerontologist with some interesting plans for real scientific anti-aging medicine - will be speaking at this Singapore conference. Hopefully we'll have a chance to see some of his presentation in print later in the year.

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