Beyond the Choir

On the matter of healthy life extension science, the choir - which is to say gerontologists, bioscientists and those advocates closest to the research - has more or less finished up the infighting of the past decade. There are degrees to which healthy life extension is supported, but the choir now largely faces in the same direction - forward, to longer, healthier lives.

A glance around the community sees a younger generation of scientists who take the goal of healthy life extension through science in their stride, as a given:

it is good to be alive today, so why not tomorrow? I could write a book on all the things I'd like to do that one lifetime isn't enough for. I can understand how it is culturally advantageous (or at least inevitable) to come up with justifications for aging being ok when there is no prospect of intervention. But to maintain those beliefs when intervention is foreseeable is irrational. Any pro-death argument is vastly out of proportion with the horrible reality of aging: the gradual decay of your body that culminates in the ceasing of your existence.

That was from a pro-life extension blog written by a young molecular biologist, in an interview with another pro-life-extension young molecular biologist. Further afield, researchers only a few years more advanced in their careers bemoan the conservative culture that prevents them speaking openly about the defeat of aging:

"The cure for aging" is the instant-death third rail of grantsmanship and we stay away from it.

That culture won't be around for much longer. There's only so long that folk with another decade or two in the field can sit around harrumping in the face of advancing science and public support. Indeed, this year the dam started to break - and the choir are aligning.

Dear Fellow Scientists and Public-Health Advocates:

In March of this year we published an article in The Scientist entitled "In Pursuit of the Longevity Dividend" in which we contend that the time has arrived for governments and national health care organizations to invest in the extension of healthy life by recognizing that one of the most efficient ways to do so would be to aggressively pursue the means to slow aging in humans.

There is a school of thought that suggests putting the choir in order is sufficient to expand the congregation and move forward. Another school of thought suggests that without first building the congregation, you'll never have the right level of support to create a meaningful choir for a new purpose in research. I suspect that both have an element of truth, and that you have to move forward with both initiatives at once for the best possible rate of progress.

If the choir is shaking itself out, where then should the preaching be directed?

Not so long ago, my attention was directed to a rather slick stem cell presentation website from MIT and Harvard aimed putting forward the most elementary factual information into the mass market. I don't see this as a better path forward than the wordier approach, but I point it out to illustrate that even in a field that has undergone a saturation of attention for years, there is still tremendous value in education and broadening the understanding of the simple concepts.

In the case of health life extension and support for research aimed at reversing or slowing aging, for all the fact that a fair number of people have been out there stumping on the topic for years, we still live in a world dominated by the Tithonus Error and myriad other forms of hostility to extending the healthy human life span. Much of it is of the knee-jerk variety, dispelled by education and changing viewpoints - but there's a great deal more to be done in this space if we are to engineer the broad support needed to build an engine of progress to match the cancer research community.

Technorati tags: ,