A Thought on Priorities

Let us contemplate for a moment the level of effort that people put in to just one method of papering over just one of the changes caused by aging - just to keep up appearances, and making no difference at all to the underlying processes that cause degeneration. The method I had in mind is the use of dye to camouflage the progressive graying of hair. The fading of color of hair is an early sign that stem cell populations are responding to rising levels of damage, becoming less active in maintaining tissue. For whatever reason the pigment cells that give hair its color are more sensitive than others to the accumulating cellular and molecular damage of aging. Painting your hair in brightly colored chemicals does absolutely nothing other than cover up the evidence of this process, of course. You're still degenerating underneath that dye.

Individually, touching up graying hair isn't a great undertaking, and nor does it cost much. But when many, many people do it, that adds up. Ten years ago, hair dye was an industry with $7 billion in yearly sales worldwide - give or take. While that certainly includes the Manic Panic youth brigade, a large fraction of that commerce involves coloring gray hair. So it's not a stretch to suggest that the world's elder folk have a great enough interest in hair dye to fund the NIA several times over, or for something more constructive, provide the budget to implement the SENS vision of rejuvenation biotechnology a couple of times every year.

This sort of comparison serves to illustrate just how small research and development expenditures in medicine are in comparison to almost any form of day to day commerce. They tell us nothing about how to change that state of affairs, however. It's already something of a mystery as to why people are so relentlessly irrational when it comes to directing resources towards actual improvements in health and longevity versus papering over the cracks with hair dye or funding culturally accepted fraud in the form of "anti-aging" products.

Is it the case that people decide between funding research and hiding the gray, and choose to hide the gray? Or is it that funding meaningful research doesn't really even enter that choice matrix? To reframe these questions, is the solution to adequately funding the best and most promising longevity science more a matter of persuasion or more a matter of education?


Even if research did enter the matrix, it's still a classic public good sort of problem: research on aging benefits everyone, whereas if you buy some hair dye, you gain a march on everyone who declines to fake their hair color.

Posted by: gwern at August 14th, 2012 2:50 PM

When someone buys hair dye they are paying for an immediate solution to a problem they have right now. When someone donates to the SENS Foundation, they are paying for a potential solution to a problem they'll have at an uncertain time in the future. Even worse, unless that person is wealthy, their donation is not likely to change the outcome of whether or not therapies will be available in their lifetime.

In light of this inherent difficulty, I think the best approach is one that focuses on monetizing the fruits of research as soon as possible. That way, more challenging therapies can be funded by previous successes.

Posted by: Joe Snikeris at August 14th, 2012 3:03 PM

Collective action problem. Dyeing your hair makes your life measurably better. Unilaterally donating the same amount to fund aging research accomplishes pretty much nothing. If everyone donated that much, it could make a real difference, but you only control your own behavior.

The real question is why billionaires, who really can make a real difference through unilateral action, choose not to.

Posted by: Brandon Berg at August 14th, 2012 4:17 PM

interesting aside on research into greying hair

ironically it was recently discovered that hydrogen peroxide build up(produced natually in the human body) is the other major factor in greying hair. [the irony is that the chemical is sometimes used in the cosmetics industry to bleach hair]


theres an important lesson here: most aging processes are two-factor processes:

(1) reduction of good chemicals AND
(2) build-up of bad chemicals

in the case of greying hair in aging the two factors are:

(1) loss of melanin-producing cells AND
(2) build up of hydrogen peroxide

the interesting point is that its much easier to fix factor 2 than it is to fix factor 1.

this suggests that the best strategy for attacking aging in general is to focus first on breaking down and removing bad cells/chemicals rather than attempting to fix/restore good ones.

Posted by: zarzuelazen at August 14th, 2012 11:09 PM

As a 29 year old, who is going gray pretty quick it seems, the last thing I want to do is dye it for exactly the reason that it's just lying to oneself. I'd much rather a cure than a treatment.

Posted by: Louis Burke at August 15th, 2012 12:54 AM

Perhaps, the following paper on reversing the graying process -

"Hair repigmentation associated with the use of lenalidomide: Graying may not be an irreversible process!"

- might provide some evidence of what drives the more general aging program.

Posted by: Lou Pagnucco at August 15th, 2012 7:46 AM

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