Mainstream Gerontology versus the Anti-Aging Marketplace

Mainstream gerontologists don't like the anti-aging marketplace - see my thoughts on anti-aging science, medicine and businesses at the Longevity Meme for some of the reasons why:

Scientists are appalled at what is going on in the anti-aging marketplace. The more reputable businesses in that marketplace are appalled by the hucksters and adventurous branding. Anti-aging is both a valuable brand and important science that all these groups are attempting to control or profit from - in many cases their aims are at odds with one another.

The war over the meaning of "anti-aging" is being fought over money and the perception of legitimacy. It is this perception of legitimacy that determines funding for scientific research and revenues for businesses. Scientists feel, quite rightly, that the noise and nonsense coming from the anti-aging marketplace is damaging the prospects for serious, scientific anti-aging research. If everyone knows that anti-aging means high-priced cream from Revlon marketed to the gullible and brand-aware, no scientist is going to get funding for a serious proposal in aging research that uses the word "anti-aging." Worse than that, people start to assume that real efforts to reverse aging must be impossible - and large scale science requires public support and understanding.

Businesses in the "anti-aging" marketplace make money from the aura of legitimacy whether or not their products perform as advertised, and so a lot of effort is expended to create and maintain this perception of legitimacy. Those businesspeople with working, accurately marketed products carry out their own fight against opportunists, frauds and "marketeers" - businesses that are damaging the market and diluting the brand. Ironically, this is much the same argument used against the more legitimate businesses by scientists.

You may recall the annual Silver Fleece Award given out by Jay Olshansky - a conservative gerontologist - to groups that he feels are perpetrating "antiaging quackery." It went to A4M this year, and they were most displeased. I have to say that while I have my issues with A4M, they are certainly not in the same ballpark as the 2003 recipients of the award. A4M supports the Methuselah Mouse Prize, and organizes conferences at which the scientific side is quite respectable, even if the exhibition floor is packed by some of the less reputable companies and products. Their definition of "anti-aging medicine" is also respectable:

Anti-ageing medicine is really nothing more than an extension of preventive health care, the next great model of health care for the new millennium. It offers a solution to alleviate some of the burden of the burgeoning ageing population. This model is based on the early detection, prevention, and reversal of ageing-related diseases.

If they would just quit advocating human growth hormone and find some way to keep the frauds and fraudulent marketing out of their conferences, I'd be more supportive.

In any case, this year the gerontologists are making more of an effort. As noted at Medical News Today, gerontological organizations are calling for better education and greater government regulation of the anti-aging industry:

Consumers must be afforded better protection against interventions falsely claiming to reverse or retard the aging process, according to an article published by legal and medical professionals in the June issue of The Gerontologist (Vol. 44, No. 3).

The team of researchers, based at Case Western Reserve University, urge professional organizations to undertake a sustained program of specific educational efforts to designed to sort out the "helpful, the harmful, the fraudulent, and the harmless antiaging practices and products."

They suggest that many anti-aging treatments can seriously harm older persons and aging baby boomers, and may divert them from more medically-proven therapies. Currently, there are many barriers to effective governmental regulation of anti-aging interventions, state authors Maxwell J. Mehlman, JD, Robert H. Binstock, PhD, Eric T. Juengst, PhD, Roselle S. Ponsaran, MA, and Peter J. Whitehouse, MD, PhD.

Support for the preparation of the article was provided by the National Institute on Aging and the National Human Genome Research Institute. The piece also continues The Gerontological Society of America's series of summer events designed to confront the hope and hype of anti-aging medicine. The subject is addressed in special sections of the June and July issues of The Journal of Gerontology: Biological Sciences, as well as a recently released edition of the Public Policy and Aging Report, put out by GSA's policy branch, the National Academy on an Aging Society.

I'm would be very pleased to see gerontological organizations making a better effort to educate the public regarding real anti-aging science - what is possible, what can be done, and what is out of the realms of possibility. Aubrey de Grey has long said that gerontologists are not making enough of an effort to speak out, and that this damages the cause of aging science. Government intervention, however? Not good. It's just never a smart idea to invite the government in to mess up your house. You'll always regret it later ... and the history of government intervention in medical research and practice is not a pretty one to begin with.

Ultimately, mainstream gerontology has to sort out its own house as well. The conservative old guard in the field are slowing down efforts to greatly extend the healthy human life span by refusing to seriously debate proposals like that advanced by Aubrey de Grey. The times are changing rapidly as new technology allows medical science to proceed ever faster. Simply campaigning against the fraudulent portion of the anti-aging industry is not good enough - far better to embrace the future of longevity research and lead by example.

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