Once you start digging into a topic, it becomes all too easy to lose sight of your previous state of knowledge, and the opinions you held before you learned more. What were your thoughts on aging research and engineered longevity before you became interested enough to start reading this blog on a regular basis? When we talk about advocacy and fundraising for projects like the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, we are really talking about convincing people who are presently where you used to be: they are potentially interested, but not in the loop, and not seeing the whole picture. If you lose sight of how these folk think - which is the same way that you used to think - then you will find it harder to persuade and educate.
The opening paragraphs of a recent book review manage, I think, to capture the present state of mind of the educated layperson. He knows that something interesting is going on, dismisses most of what is said about aging and longevity beyond the scientific community, and is ignorant of specific research initiatives most likely to show promise.
There is a paradox at the heart of the debate on aging. All the recipes for averting the effects of senescence - the anti-wrinkle oils, the vitamin supplements, the testosterone shots, the strict dieting regimens - are plainly little better than snake oil. And yet something is obviously working: People are living longer and longer, and are getting healthier and healthier in old age. Experts have been predicting for decades that average life expectancy will level out, but it stubbornly keeps rising. Others have predicted a growing burden of ill health among the elderly. Yet old people are healthier than ever, much of their illness compressed into shorter periods at the end of life.
Average life expectancy across the world has roughly doubled in the past century. In the U.S., the passing of every day marks another five hours added to people's lives; the number of Americans who are 100 or older has doubled since 2000. The chief cause of this remarkably benign trend is the defeat of serious infectious disease, but there are other elements as well: Heart disease is killing fewer, and stroke is striking later.
The science of age is equally paradoxical. It abounds in empirical facts about what causes aging, yet the science still lacks any convincing, unifying theory. Eating dramatically less food - caloric restriction - makes mice live longer; just two genetic mutations can double the life span of a worm; breeding from the oldest flies in a test tube can double the life span of flies in a few generations; bats and birds, tortoises and rougheye rockfish live for decades while opossums are senile two years after birth. Naked mole rats live five times as long as their size implies they should.
It is the large number of people who hold these views and this level of knowledge that we must educate and persuade to help out if we are to see significant progress in the repair of aging in our lifetimes. What they know now is a jumbled collection of facts that have not been assembled into a coherent whole - but until that assembly happens there is no apparent motivation to learn more or pitch in and help. It is the responsibility of advocates to help move as many people as possible from "this is all very interesting, but..." to "ah, now I see the potential."