Deckchairs on the Titanic: The Present Study of Aging

I look at a great deal of the popular press on aging and see articles informed by the strange, deep-seated belief that nothing will change - that the only action of merit is rearranging or understanding the minutiae. In a world in which we are quite possibly a couple of decades away from adding those couple of decades back on to healthy life spans, articles that treat a year of difference in life expectancy for one racial group over another as an issue of vital importance seem to drift in from some different, dream-ridden reality.

For example, a recent analysis by Irma T. Elo, a demographer at the University of Pennsylvania, indicates that a 65-year-old white woman will live, on average, an additional 18.9 years. But a 65-year-old Hispanic woman who immigrated to the United States will live an additional 19.8 years, a significant difference.

The longevity difference persists even though Hispanic immigrants tend to be like Mrs. Lara, poor and poorly educated and lacking health care. It persists even though, like Mrs. Lara, they get chronic diseases like arthritis and high blood pressure and are often overweight.

“Everyone,” said Kyriakos S. Markides, who directs the Division of Sociomedical Sciences at the University of Texas in Galveston, “is trying to figure out what the hell is going on.”

It's not a reality I'd like to live in - one of a narrow fascination with the color of pebbles at the site of construction of a mighty dam. The pebbles will be there tomorrow, and tens of millions are dying of aging now. Yet pebbles it is, a focus here on researchers who turn the tools of modern science to trivial pursuits in the face of an ongoing avalanche of death and suffering. We could be doing far more to halt the death and suffer of aging - but not a word here on those working to make a difference.

This next article isn't much better:

“The idea was, when a state changed compulsory schooling from, say, six years to seven years, would the people who were forced to go to school for six years live as long as the people the next year who had to go for seven years,” Dr. Lleras-Muney asked.

All she would have to do was to go back and find the laws in the different states and then use data from the census to find out how long people lived before and after the law in each state was changed.

“I was very excited for about three seconds,” she says. Then she realized how onerous it could be to comb through the state archives.

But when her analysis was finished, Dr. Lleras-Muney says, “I was surprised, I was really surprised.” It turned out that life expectancy at age 35 was extended by as much as one and a half years simply by going to school for one extra year.

So much effort going into filling in the dots, to picking at the grains of what is, and narry a mention of what could be done today (not to mention what is being done today) to work towards a real difference - not a year for a few, but decades for all. What a hole we have dug for ourselves in our present culture and its attitudes towards aging, towards change! The passive life is little better than death, and the popular press is ever the mirror held up to a passive life; the rejection of change; the numbing of the mind to the new; the discarding of individual responsibility for a better future.

So it's deckchairs on the titanic, from here until your allotted part is spent. Hah! I would hope that we can all sense there is more than that to a life well-lived. What of building, what of creating the new? We humans can change the rules of the game - and here in modern biotechnology we have the chance to change some of the oldest rules of all, to bring about the defeat of aging, an end to suffering, frailty and death for billions in the decades ahead.

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Don't be so discouraged. Dr. Lleras-Muney's study was probably harmless and it kept her out of trouble for a while. The fact is that the real breakthroughs are going to come from people much more imaginative and creative than the Dr. Lleras-Muneys of bureaucratic science. Sadly they will continue to suck up resources but I suspect once the momentum hits an ill defined threshold, it will snowball. The venture capitalists will salivate at the idea of a treatment that makes people feel, or become, younger.

Posted by: ShrinkWrapped at January 3rd, 2007 7:51 AM

I agree with ShrinkWrapped, given the way the grant process works some number of mildly interesting studies such as this are going to be funded, no matter what. They won't be taking money away from CR mimetic studies, though, because the results are coming in from primate studies that are clear. There are already people out there digging further into resveratrol complex polyphenols, and they won't be stopping just because some useless studies get funded.

Plus "useless" is sometimes in the eye of the beholder. Not all that long ago, anti-oxidants and the "rust" theory of aging were dominant, if we'd followed the "plunge everything into what we know works" approach then there'd have been no research into CR at all. So let's not be so hasty as to write off even bureaucratic science that pushes the threshold of knowledge out a little bit more, even if it is in a direction you don't personally approve of.

Posted by: Observer at January 3rd, 2007 9:18 AM

Actually, the blunderbuss here was aimed at the focus and mindset of the press, not the science - although I see where that could have been made more clear.

Posted by: Reason at January 3rd, 2007 6:53 PM
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