The Three Types of Research into Aging and Longevity

I view the world of aging and longevity science as divided into three broad classes of research and researchers - something that will already be apparent to regular readers, but which I don't recall having outlined explicitly. This crude model of the research community informs the ways in which I read research and evaluate the state of progress towards meaningful goals: both extension of healthy human life, and - more importantly - forms of medicine capable of repair and reversal of aging.

Class 1: Investigating Aging

By far the largest component of the aging science community is made up of researchers who are not working on ways to alter or repair the aging process. They investigate only, and thus the majority of funds devoted to the science of aging still go towards studies that aim to make no difference to the world beyond gathering data. This group include most of those who run demographic studies of human longevity, for example.

Aging research is unusual in the medically-relevant life sciences by virtue of this preponderance of "look but don't touch." Up until comparatively recently it was extremely hard to find funding or respect for work that aimed to do more than gather data on aging; the scientific community worked to exclude those who had such goals in mind, and funding sources closed their doors to anyone known to harbor heretical thoughts about extending human life through biotechnology.

Class 2: Working to Slow Aging

The larger minority class in aging research is made up of researchers and funding institutions who are working towards ways to slow aging, or working on related areas that will be used in constructing therapies to slow aging. The typical approach here is to reverse engineering the genetic and other low-level biochemical roots of known differences in longevity (such as the effects of calorie restriction, or the differences in life span between similar species), and then try to reproduce some of those differences using drugs, gene therapies, and other similar means. The view of these researchers is largely that we are a long way from any practical results, and those results will only offer incremental gains - a viewpoint I agree with.

Nonetheless, this class is where much of the energy and vigor is in funding and growth for aging research. This may be because this general research strategy is easily understood by traditional sources of funding, and is only an incremental alteration to previous forms of old-school drug development work.

The sea change in the aging research community over the past decade or so has largely manifested as a transformation of researchers from the bulk of class 1 into up and coming enthusiasts of class 2. As it became respectable to talk about doing something about aging - thanks to the hard work of a comparatively small number of advocates and visionary scientists - there has been a steady shifting of research priorities. The investigators still outnumber research groups working on ways to alter the course of aging, but the trend is clearly towards a field that develops clinical applications in medicine rather than only informing the medical profession of what to expect in their patients.

Class 3: Working to Reverse Aging

The smallest and most important cohort of researchers are those who are working on ways to repair, reverse, or work around the root causes of aging - the SENS Foundation research network being the archetype, though not the only set of researchers and laboratories involved in this work. This class are the most important because their approach is the only viable path we can see that has a good chance of producing rejuvenation biotechnology capable of greatly extending healthy life in the elderly - through restoring youthful function and vigor. This is the smallest cohort because we do not live in a particularly rational world.

I have discussed in the past why it is that repair based strategies are so very much better than approaches based on slowing down aging. The short of it is that aging is a matter of damage: slowing down the pace of damage will do little for people who are already old, while repairing damage will be beneficial to everyone. You can only achieve rejuvenation through actual repair, not by slowing down the rust. Given that the cost of producing therapies from the two very different strategic approaches to medicine for aging will likely be in the same ballpark, we should evidently aim for the better outcome.

There is also the matter of time - it will be decades before either side of the house has a mature base of therapies in place, and by the time those therapies are available those of use with the greatest vested interest in using them will be old. So only the strategy of aiming for rejuvenation offers the chance of an outcome that grants additional decades at the end of the day - enough time to push past actuarial escape velocity and thus be able to wait out the advent of even better therapies.

But cogent arguments aside, the greatest growth in aging research is still amongst class 2, those working on the slow road to a poor end result. Now that the research community is essentially persuaded to the view that work on aging is good, interesting, and plausible, the next - and equally important - goal of advocacy is to persuade a great many more researchers to work on the SENS vision for rejuvenation biotechnology or equivalent scientific programs.

Many, many lives depend on it.


I want to take time to plug FIGHT AGING and David Kekich for unselfishly dedicating so much time, effort and information regarding extended lives. I do not believe there is a more worthy cause in the universe and not only does the job need doing, they do it in a wonderful, comprehensive manner.
I can only hope the future will recognize the efforts of these and all the other pioneers who are working to bring mankind such a positive future. Thank you for my chance at more life and all you have done to provide me with the information, hope and faith it takes to allow me the chance, however remote, to obtain it. From my heart to yours. Thank you sincerely. Jim E. Mel

Posted by: Jim e. Mel at November 14th, 2013 2:17 PM

Today in searching around on the Fight Aging web site I ran across the above article again and I have another comment to make. Only later did I realize I had already made one comment already, but, this one is more relevant to the article and not otherwise so general.
It occurred to me that there are at least two other classes of 'research' that deserve to be noted. 1) There is the futurist version of study which very strongly includes an exceptional respect for science. Example: While I am not sure how they will go about it, I have faith that science is one day going to find any cure they set out to find including relief from aging and dying. Many of us hold that point of view and are ready to accept cryonics and brain preservation techniques that are not very commonplace. Some of these approaches are still placed far away from the focus and emphasis it would take to bring them into the mainstream of current longevity science. Never the less, such concepts and expectations are alive and well, in fact necessary for some of us.
Those of us who are older are drawn quite naturally to this latter approach because we do not have time on our side to wait for even the best of the other works that, while being more reasonable, are just not in our time frame unless we can come up with suspending our aging and death in some manner beyond what is normal, e.g. cryonics.
Secondly, I think it is important to mention the most popular of all longevity endeavors which includes the sales of information (books) and items (supplements) for improving and maintaining good health (and ultimately, more life). This focus revolves around a buzz that many (most) people, want to be doing something they think as being proactive about their health. They want to have better health and longer lives by eating better and exercise.
Unfortunately, this latter trend, while popular and ubiquitous give people a false sense of comfort and likely does take away from some of the other classes of education and research that will ultimately, over enough time, produce radical life extension. All works are worthwhile, but for us, the latter kinds of approach are more appropriate out of necessity.

Posted by: JIM MELICHAR at August 3rd, 2014 6:23 PM

Hi there,
I'm currently a PhD student in the area of Microbiology/Immunology, but I've recently been considering going into aging research once I've graduated. Can anyone give me a list of the kinds of researchers working on reversing aging (Class 3 in this article)? In particular, I'm interested in root causes of aging and therapeutic/genetic mechanisms of reversing them.

Posted by: Erik Carter at December 7th, 2019 8:54 PM

@Erik - If you want to stay with Microbiology/Immunology, there are a ton of anti-aging research directions that you could pursue. First, cancer research is always an option. While I personally feel that field is a tad saturated, cancer must be defeated if aging is to be tackled. Cancer immunotherapy is particularly hot right now, and from what I've seen, it seems to be the best option to realistically stop cancer. CAR-T cell therapy and cancer vaccines immediately stick out to me. There is obviously much still left to be done, and that research is undoubtedly well-funded and well-manned. My only hesitation to jumping in on this is that researchers who care about cancer are relatively common and researchers who care about aging are relatively rare. Therefore, because you are a researcher that cares about aging, you'd have a larger positive effect in fighting aging by working in a less popular field.

If you really like microbiology, there are aging gut microbiome research being done. However, I feel like that falls under class 1 mentioned here. I think a changing microbiome is an effect rather than a cause of aging. Of course, I could be wrong and you are probably in a better position to make that call for yourself.

Also, there is research that attempts to understand how senescent cells avoid immune destruction and how to train the immune system to fight back. I think this research is especially promising. Judith Campisi does a lot of work with cellular senescence, and she's part of the SENS board.

Posted by: Chris at January 16th, 2020 5:01 PM

Oh, I almost forgot: immunotherapy for Alzheimer's Disease. There were a few monoclonal antibody therapies that spectacularly failed recently, but the idea was making macrophages phagocytose amyloid would reverse AD. Even those these trials failed, there still could be effective therapies to use the immune system to clear up protein aggregates. Also, there are arguments that the immune system actually plays a causal role in AD.

Basically, the immune system is a great way to destroy junk (be that protein aggregates, senescent cells, or bacterial invaders) that come with aging. I would call this junk a root cause of aging, and managing it could possibly lead to other proximal drivers of aging to be ameliorated as well.

Posted by: Chris at January 16th, 2020 5:14 PM

Great post.

I am a Clinical Neuroscience Master's student looking for ways to make a transition towards aging research.

What options should I consider as a PhD moving forward?


Posted by: Jack Harley at August 3rd, 2020 8:45 AM

If only the same energy and effort that was put into figuring out the undecillionth digit of Pi or solving the fourth quarter of that "Kryptos" sculpture was instead invested into reversing the damAge (pun intended) of the human body.

Posted by: at December 15th, 2023 2:54 PM
Comment Submission

Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. New comments can be edited for a few minutes following submission. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

Note that there is a comment feed for those who like to keep up with conversations.