What is this "Anti-aging" Thing Anyway?

Around the time I was penning the first version of the anti-aging topic page over at the Longevity Meme, Binstock had already put out a much more eloquent paper on much the same themes. There are no unique ideas or approaches in a world full of people paying attention:

This article interprets the contemporary war on anti-aging medicine as largely an attempt by established gerontological researchers to preserve their hard-won scientific and political legitimacy, as well as to maintain and enhance funding for research on the basic biological mechanisms of aging. First, it recounts the difficult struggle of U.S. biogerontologists to join the scientific mainstream in terms of legitimization and public funding. Second, it examines how elements of a contemporary anti-aging movement seem to threaten the hard-won public legitimacy of established gerontological researchers and practitioners. Third, it looks at the "boundary work" responses of the gerontological community to the anti-aging movement. Finally, it assesses the consequences of the war on anti-aging medicine to date.

The public at large, led by a media with economic incentives to be ignorant, doesn't tend to distinguish all that well between two similar topics. Human nature at work, but that means that scientists find their funding threatened by the branding of "anti-aging" in the marketplace. Here are a couple more papers on the same topic, further illuminating the ongoing battle over understanding, support, legitimacy and funding:

Contentious terminology and complicated cartography of anti-aging medicine:

Serving as an introduction to the cultural significance of the contemporary emergence of anti-aging medicine, this article outlines some of the distinctions and controversies regarding the usage of the term "anti-aging medicine." By sketching out the complex field of researchers, practitioners, organizations, companies it is clear that "anti-aging medicine" is a highly contentious term that means different things to different groups. Thus, analysis demands a keen attention to contextualizing its usage. However, despite the critically important distinctions in how "anti-aging medicine" is used and what it connotes both to the user and the audience, the core principle of anti-aging is the notion that aging can be targeted for biomedical intervention. It is the orientation toward this explicit goal that marks anti-aging medicine. While neither advocating for/against anti-aging medicine nor excavating the large body of biological literature, this ethnographically researched article explicates the cultural use of "anti-aging medicine" and maps out its main varieties, controversies, stakes, and challenges.

Anti-aging medicine and research: a realm of conflict and profound societal implications:

Biogerontologists have recently launched a war of words on anti-aging medicine. They seek to discredit what they judge to be fraudulent and harmful products and therapies, and to distinguish their own research from what they regard as the pseudoscience of anti-aging injections, special mineral waters, and other services and products. Yet, many of these biogerontologists are themselves trying to develop interventions that will actually slow or arrest the fundamental processes of human aging and substantially extend average life expectancy and maximum life span. Achievement of these biogerontological goals would drastically alter the nature of individual and collective life, radically transforming virtually every social institution and norm. Biogerontologists who are engaged in anti-aging research need to undertake more active leadership in helping the public to understand their goals, to deliberately consider the implications of their fulfillment, and to begin thinking about ways to shape those ramifications in constructive fashions.

The paper above and the social study below cut very much to the core of it: the end goal of extended healthy life - giving more time to develop technologies to extend life even further - is profound and of greater value than any other grail of the immediate future. People who grasp and internalize that value are driven; understanding that moving along the wrong path means the difference between life and death for billions lends real weight and passion to differences of opinion.

Anti-aging medicine: a patient/practitioner movement to redefine aging:

Anti-aging medicine is a broad term that may comprise groups selling remedies over the Internet, companies touting the "anti-aging"ness of their products, practitioners who work outside of scientific medicine, and practitioners of anti-aging medicine in clinics who believe that their work is strictly scientific. This article, drawing from more than 3 years of ethnographic interviews, participant observation in clinics and conferences, and a review of the literature, considers the last group. It examines the involvement stories of anti-aging medicine practitioners in two Western United States metropolitan cities. These stories reflect the practices of anti-aging medicine practitioners and the accompanying rationale for involvement. Often originally patients themselves, practitioners frame their involvement with the anti-aging movement in three ways. First, they describe aging as it is currently experienced as a time of decline, suffering, and weakness. This anguish is not inevitable, they argue, and their work toward treating aging biomedically is situated as clearly moral. Secondly, intense frustration with the current biomedical environment has motivated practitioners to look for other ways in which to practice: anti-aging medicine is their chosen alternative. Finally, with dramatic expectations of future biotechnologies and disdain for current medical treatments of old age, anti-aging practitioners embrace a scientific revolutionary identity.

The mainstream of genontology does not publicly share whatever private enthusiasm its members have for rapid progress in developing therapies for aging, for they have - perhaps inadvertently - constructed a community in which that enthusiasm is the instant death third rail for funding. On the other side of the fence, enthusiasts and believers of the anti-aging marketplace (as opposed to the pure businessmen and frauds) are invariably taking the all too human shortcut of belief over science, and pushing things that don't work or otherwise cannot be shown to do much good.

As is so often the case, neither of the big bulls kicking up dust and butting heads is where you should be looking if you want to find the best path forward. Change must happen for either side to be the source of more rapid, sweeping progress. At the present time, attention and funds are better pointed elsewhere.

The better path I have in mind is support and growth for that presently small part of the scientific community that is interested in rapid progress in extending the healthy human life span, not afraid to talk about it, and in no danger of falling into the pit of the marketplace by jumping the gun and pushing products that don't work. Should this group succeed in gaining more influence, they will lead both the mainstream of gerontology and the anti-aging markplace into the needed changes that will produce more positive contributions to the future of healthy longevity - this much has been demonstrated from progress to date.

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