Criticizing the Longevity Dividend

Not everyone is wholly enthused by the declaration of intent on modest healthy life extension and call for a repurposing of mainstream gerontology and aging research put forward by Olshansky, Perry, Miller and Butler.

Olshansky wants you to live an astounding 7 years longer!

Direct from the 'lack of vision' department comes S. Jay Olshanksky's latest offering to the great life extension debate.


But typical of Olshansky, his limited vision for the potentials of life extension is at the point of laughability. He once told me that it is his expectation to see life expectancy decrease this century rather than increase, citing such things as the spread of diseases.

Olshansky, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Illinois, and go-to boy for the press when they need an anti-life extension sound-bite, argues that it is in society's best interest to work at alleviating the effects of aging. To this end he suggests that US congress invest $3 billion annually to life extension with the hopes of prolonging lives by a factor of -- drum roll please -- an astounding 7 years.

Yep, 7 years.

The bandwagon is open:

Now.. where have I heard this before? Oh yeah.. its just what Aubrey de Grey has been saying for YEARS!


The article however makes one significant and really quite dramatic error in putting forward the goal of fighting aging is to 'compress morbidity'. The "compression of morbidity", or the reduction of the number of years spent as a frail individual without significant extension of maximal lifespan is a non-starter and neither is it desirable. Why don't the authors simply say it like it is, that living as long as a person wants to live is the goal. The 'compression of morbidity' is a red-herring meant to assure people that they do not have to have some existential angst triggered by the fact that someday death may not come by involuntary means through aging at all.

As if to further distance themselves from any possible association with the idea of living indefinitely, "the target" of their proposed increased focus on intervention oriented aging is research is ..

...not the unrealistic pursuit of dramatic increases in life expectancy, let alone the kind of biological immortality best left to science fiction novels. Rather, we envision a goal that is realistically achievable: a modest deceleration in the rate of aging sufficient to delay all aging-related diseases and disorders by about seven years.

How disappointing it is to see the more than realistic proposals of SENS treated in such a off-hand and perjorative manner by people advocating healthy life-extension. It is even more disappointing to not even have Aubrey de Grey mentioned although it is virtually certain that without his sabre-rattling we would not be reading even this meager pronouncement. Granted these are the same individuals who have outright belittled and ridiculed the idea of living indefinitely, so I would expect no more. Seven years though.. ? How ambitious...

These are valid criticisms - that this proposal is late to the party, fails to acknowledge those who have been advocating similar approaches for some years, and touts a target for gains in healthy life span that is somewhat less than the actuaries and system biologists think will be attained in the next 10 to 20 years by present trends and research directions.

I am still enthused; these folks have taken the big step of adopting a public position on healthy life extension. It has been a long fight to get them to this point, all the way from their prior reluctance to engage on the topic at all. Olshansky, Perry, Miller and Butler and their supporters and organizations must now defend this position - and therefore debate the science - in public on an ongoing basis. Since their position is already somewhat indefensible in its moderation, and only going to get worse with time, I predict that it will shift to greater and more impressive healthy life extension as the leading edge of the research community pushes the limits of plausibility outwards. The dam has been broken, and bringing the obstinate old guard up to speed is now only going to get easier.

The Longevity Dividend proposal is primarily a political position - which should instantly explain most of its deficiencies to those who follow the way in which funding politics works. It's the first step in a long engagement with large-scale government funding sources (such as the National Institute on Aging) in an attempt to steer future funds into the sorts of moderate programs supported by its authors. That Miller, et al, are doing this at all illustrates, amongst many other things, a concern that future funding will dry up in favor of groups presently moving to advocate healthy life extension - such as those system biologists, or supporters of the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence. Thus this faction of the mainstream is basically on board already; competition at work!

This all acts to build a better funding environment, supporting continued advocacy and fundraising efforts for research aimed at more impressive healthy life extension. The more scientists who go on the record in support of any degree of healthy life extension, the more condusive the overall environment becomes for leading edge work.

The Longevity Dividend proposal demonstrates that avoiding the trap of moderating our message brings results: it makes the mainstream get into gear and start to see things our way. Therefore, I say it's time to step up the support for radical life extension, the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, and an engineered cure for aging!

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I think you're being more than a little harsh on Olshansky et al. when you say "[t]hat Miller, et al, are doing this at all illustrates, amongst many other things, a concern that future funding will dry up in favor of groups presently moving to advocate healthy life extension - such as those system biologists, or supporters of the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence."

Looking at the winds of politics, it's just as likely they're concerned that funding will not only dry up in its entirety, but that the drying up will be accompanied by additional regulatory restraints on biogerontology research at the state and federal levels. Have you forgotten the Missouri referendum in the works? Do you think Missouri is anomalous?

Look at the percentage of people out there that really think like you do. Look at the percentage of people out there that support political moves like the Missouri referendum and other initiatives of the think tanks behind it. Forget the normative element for a moment. I'm making an empirical observation, not a normative argument. There is no evidence to support the proposition that funds are lurking out there poised to leap into the radical life extension arena, if only these doggone moderates would get out of the way. More likely, those funds would go to other fields, where the rest of mainstream health-care research funding goes. Don't make the mistake of overestimating your own strategic position. Great men have taken great falls from making that great misjudgment.

Posted by: Gramarye at March 14th, 2006 7:41 AM
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