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An Editorial on Death and Ageism from the Latest Rejuvenation Research

The latest issue of Rejuvenation Research is available online, and it opens with what is perhaps one of the best of points to make in a world in which people are dying all around us:

I welcome Dr. Paula Moreira as a new member of our editorial board, but for the worst possible reason. Moreira has been appointed as a replacement for Mark Smith, a fellow professor at Case Western Reserve University, who tragically died in a car accident late last year. What is even worse is that Smith is not the only loss that the field of biogerontology has suffered in 2010. In fact, I am aware of fully five other researchers who died during 2010. Amir Abramovich (whose Ph.D. advisor has penned a brief obituary that appears later in this issue) and Estela Medrano also succumbed to road accidents. James Joseph died from complications following heart surgery. Chris Heward was the victim of a particularly aggressive esophageal cancer. And Bob Butler died very suddenly of leukemia.

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I have chosen to highlight these sombre events in this space not only to commemorate lost friends and colleagues. My main reason for doing so is to draw attention to the questionable validity of our tendency to grieve especially intensely for those who die when still highly active. Though I share this tendency, I think it deserves scrutiny, because it is founded on an assumption that profoundly contradicts the motivation for the work to which we, as did the colleagues I have just listed, dedicate our lives.

Aging kills people, just as cars do. There are only two things that distinguish aging from other killers: it kills people very slowly, only after gradually and progressively debilitating them over many years, and it only kills people who were born quite a long time ago. The combination of these features seems to be the only available explanation for why we so meekly and calmly accept the deaths of so vast a number of people from aging, while feeling much more intense anger and despair at the comparatively rare deaths that occur in the industrialized world at younger ages.

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Is it somehow OK, or at least only a little bit sad, when someone dies of "natural causes" after "a good innings"? I would suggest that it is not OK.

Ageism permeates our societies, and our descendants will look back in disgust and horror at the way in which we allowed our historical legacy of prejudice to suppress and slow down progress towards the biotechnologies of rejuvenation. We younger folk write off the old in so many ways, and in doing so each of us is only sticking the knife into the person we'll be a few decades down the line - and teaching our children to do exactly the same. Every death is a tragedy, but so many people work so hard to pretend otherwise.

Old people suffer from a terrible debilitating medical condition: aging. Why view them any differently than the victims of any other deadly disease? If not weighed down by the degenerations of aging and the knowledge of suffering a certainly terminal condition, elderly folk could contribute greatly to all fields of human endeavor, applying the experience and knowledge of a lifetime - or adeptly applying the savings of a lifetime to fund the work of others. We would all be far wealthier if the ongoing ability to create value offered by human beings was not destroyed after a bare few decades of productivity.

Even if it wasn't the case that it is in our immediate economic self-interest to build rejuvenation biotechnologies, working to cure aging would still be the greatest of charitable causes. No other aspect of human biology or the human condition causes as much pain and death.

Aging is a horror, and it twists our society into further horrors - such as the often shameful ways in which the young treat the old. The sooner that aging can be repaired and removed as a threat to human existence, the better the human condition will become.

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