The Tithonus Error, Still Hale and Hearty

Stephen Gordon at the Speculist catches a healthy example of the Tithonus error at large in the well-linked portions of blogosphere:

Last week, after hearing a prediction of 1000-year life spans from Aubrey de Grey, Roger L. Simon expressed concern about the possibility of living too long.
112 years, say, of retirement doesn't sound exactly enthralling. That's a lot of checkers and parcheesi. One of the scientists interviewed in the article said people are living vigorous lives these days in their 70s. Ho-hum. What about in their 140s? Anybody for 120 and over tennis?

I can understand why Roger Simon wouldn't want extra drooling years. The typical response to this concern from life extension advocates is to point out that it's not just life extension, but healthy life extension that is the goal. Bill Quick commented:

Roger. the biggest problem in talking - and thinking - about news like this is shaking the three-score-and-ten mindset. The question is not "120 and over tennis," but, "tennis for 120 year olds who are physically only twenty years old?"

Advocacy is certainly a spectrum - it's quite possible to be supporting efforts to obtain large-scale funding for the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) with one hand, while trying to dispel widespread and elementary myths with the other. Still, one would hope that some progress can be made in banishing the Tithonus error to the past. If half the population no longer knee-jerks in opposition to healthy life extension based on a false conception of "older for longer" - well, that can't be a bad thing for the prospects of raising a broad platform of support for research, can it?

Gordon goes on to say this:

I suspect that life extension will come in three major stages (with many, many incremental advances moving us forward). Stage one life extension will slow aging, stage two will halt aging, and stage three will reverse aging - essentially allowing us, with maintenance, to stay whatever age we choose. I think most life extension advocates would agree with this outline.

I will note that this is only most likely because of the prevailing winds of politics within gerontology and major funding sources - they are backing a slowing of aging (such as by research into the mechanisms of calorie restriction or general advances in medical technology) where they back healthy life extension at all. However, I think that the scientists associated with SENS make a credible case for reversing aging - by repairing age-related cellular damage - as an easier, faster prospect. Ramping up the funding and cultural changes to support that point of view is going to take time, however, and most likely more time that it will take the mainstream to gain further significant funding for their work on metabolism and longevity.

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I think some treatments like stem cell therapy will incorporate all three steps. It seems easier in the case of organs to rejuvinate them, then to try to slow the aging process in the organ down.

It is useful to think about the process in three steps still. I think it much strengthens our argument when we categorize current things that are in the marketplace as falling in the anti-aging realm. For example I have argued that lipitor is already something that slows down an aspect of aging. If you would have died at 70 of a heart attack, and instead make it to 75 when you succumb to something else.. That is real progress.

Posted by: aa2 at March 22nd, 2006 8:24 PM
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