Commentary on Anti-Aging at the Longevity Meme

I believe I forget to mention here that some of my thoughts on the anti-aging industry and the use (and misuse) of the term "anti-aging" are starting to make it into more formal pieces of writing. I put up a hot topic page that attempts to explain anti-aging at the Longevity Meme just recently, for example.

Like it or not, "anti-aging" now has a number of quite different common meanings and connotations. Each is championed by a particular group or loose coalition of interests, but advocates for these groups have a way of diving into the fray without defining their terms. This makes reading about anti-aging very confusing for the newcomer.
  • For the scientific community, anti-aging refers exclusively to slowing, preventing, or reversing the aging process. There is, as of 2004, no medical technology that allows this to be done - although the jury is still out on calorie restriction in humans. Nor is there any currently available method (short of waiting for people to die) to accurately measure the effects of an alleged anti-aging therapy.

  • In the medical and more reputable business community, anti-aging means early detection, prevention, and reversal of age-related diseases. This is quite different from tackling the aging process itself, and a wide array of strategies and therapies are currently available. Calorie restriction, for example, is a demonstrated way to lower risk for a wide range of age-related degenerative conditions.

  • The wider business community - including a great many fraudulent and frivolous ventures - views "anti-aging" as a valuable brand and a demonstrated way to increase sales. At the worse end of the scale, this leads to snake oil salesmen, "anti-aging" cremes that may or may not make your skin look younger, and infomercials that tout the "anti-aging" benefits of exercise machines. Broadly, and very charitably, we can look at these varied definitions of anti-aging as meaning "to look and feel younger in some way" - which has no bearing on how long you live or how healthy you actually are.

The confusion of most interest is between the first two definitions. Many interventions lengthen life span for individuals by preventing or curing specific age-related diseases that would otherwise prove fatal. For example, ask yourself whether preventing heart disease or diabetes is anti-aging medicine. This would have no effect on the aging process, but it would help many people to live longer, healthier lives. Is this anti-aging? Scientists say no, some medical and business groups say yes.

Many of the problems stemming from the anti-aging marketplace are due to confusion over definitions and what certain products accomplish or are intended to accomplish. Some of this confusion is very deliberate ("anti-aging" exercise devices? Skin creme? Repackaged vitamins? Herbal health spas?) This greatly angers scientists, as actions taken in the marketplace divert public understanding and support away from serious attempts to lengthen the healthy human life span.

Most of what is currently sold under "anti-aging" banners and brands will have negligable effects on life span. The best of it is vitamins, pills, supplements and exercise - the motor oil of the human body. Sure, the more reputable stuff is good for you and can help you to lead a healthier life, but you just can't get that much more out of an engine when all you are doing is improving the motor oil. By focusing so much attention and money on these topics, the anti-aging marketplace is ensuring that support is diverted from what must be done in order to extend the healthy human life span by decades and more.


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