Research to Repair Aging: Where is the Urgency?

A great improvement in mainstream scientific culture has recently come to pass. Thanks to the tireless work of scientist-advocates, it is now acceptable to discuss the application of science to extending the healthy human life span.

This is a sea change from even a decade ago, when scientific anti-aging research was the instant-death third rail of grantsmanship. If you liked working as a scientist, you didn't talk about the defeat of aging, no matter how obviously relevant your work was to the end goal of extending healthy longevity.

These cultural changes should bring more support for necessary improvements in the approach to dealing with age-related frailty and degeneration. More progress could be made by redirecting resources away from the wasteful find-and-patch approach - plugging holes in the crumbling dam and hoping for the best - and towards the more efficient method of dealing with root causes in advance of resulting problems.

The present day mainstream approach to age-related degeneration, disease and frailty is a function and outgrowth of a historical lack of knowledge; if you don't know why the dam is crumbling, you get to plugging the holes and damn the expense. When plugging the holes is all you can do, then it's all you can do - it'll cost the moon and the dam will collapse only a little later than it would otherwise have done.

We can do better than this. Not right now, but soon.

The "plugging the holes" methodology is part and parcel of old school gerontology, moving hand in hand with the goal of compression of morbidity. Improve late life health, but don't extend life, in other words. Fortunately, this may be impossible - but the sooner people are working with better aims, the better.

Researchers who aim at a compression of morbidity are seeking to reduce or even eliminate late life frailty, disease and incapacity - but with no expectation of extending healthy life span. The framing principles of the reliability theory of aging and longevity, amongst other work, would seem to suggest that this is impossible - that any successful efforts to alleviate age-related suffering will also extend healthy life span.

In this viewpoint, all manifestations of aging - disease, frailty, degeneration and death - are manifestations of accumulated damage. The best way to prevent age-related degeneration is to prevent or repair that damage, but this will also extend healthy life span. You can't have one without the other - and a good thing too!

Which brings us to the urgency, or rather lack of same. I think this is a fairly typical quote from recent research widely reported in the mainstream media:

The finding that genetics, lifestyle decision making, and their interactions, may influence the ability to reach old age with preserved cognition is exciting. Identifying such genetic and behavioral factors may hold promise for better understanding the aging process and perhaps one day enriching or extending the lives of other individuals.

Perhaps, one day. Bah. We can do better, but only if we challenge ourselves and set goals.

I see driving urgency - of the sort seen in the AIDS, Alzheimer's and cancer research communities - as the next phase of cultural change in the scientific community. Driving urgency means a recognition that while there is always more left to understand, enough is known to produce working technology and a real impact upon the problem at hand. Once it is acceptable to discuss progress towards preventing 100,000 deaths every day and the concurrent suffering of hundreds of millions, I think this urgency to bring working anti-aging medicine to the table will naturally follow.

Not so naturally that we advocates can sit back and watch, but it will come. We'll make sure of that.

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