The Way People Think About Aging

The more time you spend thinking about aging, longevity science, and a future in which aging can be repaired, the further you move away from the mindset shared by most people in the world. At times it can be a challenge to recall that, yes, you lived in a "pro-aging trance" back in the day, accepting that growing old and dying was just the way of things. It's a part of the very human tendency to see the world as it is, continuing forever: at some level, we're hardwired to reject all prospects for change as being somewhat ridiculous. So we grow up in the world that is, and comparatively few people spend much time looking beyond that to the world that could be.

Anyway, this line of thinking is prompted by an interesting post over at In Search of Enlightenment:

Those who have read some of my academic work, or past entries on this blog, will know I am an advocate of longevity science. I am very interested in hearing the arguments and reactions people have to the aspiration to slow human aging, for I myself shared some of these reservations when I first began thinking about these issues. But over time I realized that many of my initial reactions or concerns to longevity science where either misinformed or focused on concerns that are, in the big picture of things, minor when compared to the enormous benefits of extending healthy life.

So here I want to reflect a bit on some of the issues that arose in our class discussion and debate concerning tackling human aging.

It's a long post. Setting aside the redistributive economic viewpoint, it covers a lot of useful ground in the ongoing discussion about aging and extending the healthy human life span.

From the long term perspective, longevity science is still in the earliest stages of building a foundation of support. The handful of multi-million dollar philanthropic initiatives presently taking place are a few seedlings in the middle of an empty field: the final engineered longevity research community will be - must be - vast by comparison. It will look very much like the cancer research or regenerative medicine communities today.

When talking about progress over decades, the most important part of that progress is not the year in which scientific progress reaches a tipping point - although that helps - but it is the year in which advocacy and education reaches a tipping point. Significant progress occurs when a large number of people want it to occur: up until that point matters tends to move slowly. This means that we should pay more attention to the way we used to think, back in the day. How did we wake from our pro-aging trances? That event has to be repeated many millions of times over the next decade if a large community and effective community of supporters, researchers, and fundraisers is to arise.


It's really true. I take so much less for granted about aging (and aged people) now and it all started wit that first step that woke me up. These days I have only residual assumptions about people of any age, seeing all people rather as 'young people' but with lesser or greater amounts of age induced damage to their bodies. Far from being ridiculous or far fetched, the desirability of treating aging now seems profoundly logical and oddly obvious to me, as though I should have thought of it ages ago.

This evolution in my thinking was actually pretty rapid, but it was a hell of a nick to my perception of the world and left me reeling at first. It happened almost overnight, beginning with an awareness that aging was really starting to happen to me personally, to admitting to myself that I have a really big problem with that, to beginning to think of aging as a biological condition rather than a given immutable fact and then recognizing that it is absolutely a qualitatively bad thing. After that came despair with the knowledge that every person on earth suffers from the condition, and finally the great encouragement of discovering the existence of longevity science and the fact that I am not alone in my beliefs. A year later I find myself merely wanting to help, however I can. My perspective has been irrevocably and powerfully changed for the better, and I have resolved to be part of the solution to this enormous but totally fixable problem. I am convinced that many people who have not thought about these issues would, if given a little push, share my enthusiasm.

I'm just really unsure how to make that happen. The MFoundation's plan to produce longevity in mice is a good one, but greater advocacy and funding will be needed to get to that point in a timely fashion. So what do we do? What needs to happen?

Posted by: Ben at October 10th, 2008 10:13 PM

In the course of a career in surgery, I soon came to realize that I was really not saving lives, only prolonging them mostly in a better state than before surgery. Now that I am old (77)nothing works quite the same although all systems are still working. I have to work harder to stay fit enough to enjoy the active live I have always led. I've had 4 operations in the last two years, which have helped but not they do not stop the process of aging and nothing will. I accept that and do not hope for miracles. I suspect we will gradually live longer, but mostly through healthier life styles and not so much through great breakthroughs in science.

Posted by: David Ashbaugh, MD at October 11th, 2008 4:00 PM

Fear of death is one of the greatest forces in driving people to embrace religion, especially to those faiths that specifically assert the existence of life after death. It would be wonderful if we could channel just a fraction of that existing religious fervor into enthusiasm for longevity research.

Posted by: Robert Koslover at October 11th, 2008 4:07 PM

It is true. Aging seems to be a given. Age-reversal seems impossible, just like a visit to the Moon would have seemed impossible to Columbus or Magellan.

I, however, don't think aging can be reversed. It could be slowed down greatly to enable lifespans of 150 or more, yes, but I am not convinced that reversal can be done.

Posted by: Tood at October 11th, 2008 4:43 PM

If we look at life from a catholicfundamentalism perspective, we do not age.
Our bodies do, of course, but our soul goes on forever. The trick is to get it to go on forever in a place that's not overly painful for eternity.

Posted by: bill at October 11th, 2008 5:15 PM

I just lost a job because the people that hired me suddenly came to the realization that I was 60 years old, and this only because I had to provide my birth date as part of the paperwork process. Then the stupid office manager posted everyone's birth dates as though she were doing us a "meet and greet" favor. Yeah, right.

I can't prove I was let go because of age, but it's about the only thing that makes sense under the circumstances. And it's entirely a psychological boundary that people have constructed. It's something that will have to be remedied if people really are going to age more slowly, but it's so ingrained that I can't imagine it happening without considerable upheaval. In a sense you have power if you're in the middle of the age spectrum, but people at the ends don't have much. This is comfortable for the folks in the middle, and they use the power routinely. I can't believe I ever thought it was a level playing field.

Posted by: Demosophist at October 11th, 2008 8:06 PM

An important thing to keep in mind will be the need to provide for the social and spiritual aspects of a longer life as well. I posted earlier this week about using technology to help older folks broaden their virtual worlds even as their physical world becomes smaller as a result of aging, mobility issues and such. As the boomers age I predict that there will be an explosion of social networks (GeezerSpace?) online learning opportunities and the like targeted specifically to older adults. The intellectual and social stimulation can have a large and positive effect on longevity, especially if it reduces a perception of being isolated and having diminished value to society.

Betsy Clark

Posted by: Betsy at October 11th, 2008 8:07 PM
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