The Concept of "Aging Successfully" Seems Wrongheaded

The concept of "successful aging" is one put forward by a fairly wide-ranging group of people in medicine and research. When you break it down, "aging successfully" means that a bunch of really horrible things happen to you and your body, and then you die, but at least you weren't suffering as much as those guys over there.

This seems wrongheaded on a number of levels. It is the sort of thing that a researcher talks about when they are trying to avoid any mention of lengthening human life through medicine - which was at one time very much required:

If you want to stay in the conventional funding game, you can't even talk about therapies for degenerative aging; you must disavow any potential anti-aging application of your work, and stick to working towards therapies for specific conditions. This all ties back into last week's post on strategies for developing large-scale funding for directed anti-aging research - funding required for rapid progress towards far longer healthy life spans and the first stages of actuarial escape velocity.

This is no longer completely the case, but old habits die hard and there remains a sizable contingent in the research community who refuse to acknowledge that extending life is an ongoing goal. Hence talk of "successful aging" and "compression of morbidity" in connection with efforts to eliminate age-related disease or slow the pace at which people decline in old age. Anything other than raising the prospect of extending maximum life span in addition to healthy life span.

This is all somewhat complicated by the fact that no good definition for successful aging exists - and, really, how could it? In trying, you'll end up with something as ridiculous and self-defeating as the first paragraph in this post. You are in effect, and within the bounds of the philosophy of medicine, setting out to define an acceptable level of suffering, pain, and degeneration, rather than proposing to do treat it - which I think becomes ever more evident the more that you think about the whole thing.

Here is an open access paper on successful aging, whatever it might be in the minds of the various researchers and others pushing it as a concept. I think that final paragraph in the discussion well sums up the problems with successful aging as a goal:

It may be difficult to achieve successful aging in extremely late life. There is still no agreement on the definition of successful aging, and future work needs to expand the criteria for successful aging. In addition, more work needs to be done to examine predictors of successful aging as parts of developmental processes. Future work will contribute to the study of successful aging and help older adults achieve successful aging for as long as possible with a systematic approach to consider the past and present life and with a holistic view to understand age-related changes and challenges.

Implicit in this is the acceptance of aging and disability - the underlying assumption that aging must happen, and along with it great suffering. Aging cannot be successful. It is not a success to suffer, degenerate, and die. It isn't success to point out other people who are suffering more than you are. This whole way of thinking about about aging is a wrong, bad path that leads away from what needs to be done, which is to consider aging as a medical issue that should be addressed, just like every other medical issue that causes pain and hardship.

There is no "successful terminal cancer" movement. Why should aging sport such a thing?


In number of experiments you actually see maximization of the mean life span (i.e. increased health span). In short, I guess this would be the best described as healthy life and quick death. Similarly, "successful terminal cancer" appeared here and there - turning cancer to chronic disease with far far less suffering, less pain and more general quality of life. Pauling and Cameron observed more then 50 years ago that iv vitamin c treatment makes terminal cancer patients to live years longer then expected and die quickly.

So "The Concept of Aging Successfully" is not wrong, its just not the same as anti-aging since there is nothing in it that reverses aging. Its the same as the concept of maximal health span - minimal possible deterioration rate due to effective cellular cleansing "algorithms".

Posted by: majkinetor at August 21st, 2012 9:17 PM

It's pure doublespeak. What is called 'successful aging' is only 'successful' by virtue of the fact that it constitutes a relative -absence- of aging. A person who is said to have 'successfully' aged is one who has avoided suffering the level of damage that would be expected at their age - they have aged slightly less than normal and thus avoided some of the negative consequences that follow.

"Successful aging" is simply a misleading term that really means 'a comparative -lack- of aging'.

By the same standards, a person with $500,000 in their bank account, no current debts, an expensive house, a nice car and all the food they could ever want would be considered to be in a state of 'extremely successful poverty'.

Posted by: Arcanyn at August 22nd, 2012 2:35 AM

"Successful aging" just means "Dying at the slowest feasible rate."

Posted by: Mark Plus at August 26th, 2012 9:42 AM

Successful aging (to me) simply means feeling good and staying healthy until your last day. I am approaching the middle age years old and still run 10 miles a day,everyday. I sleep well at night and I still fit into my high school jeans because I eat sensibly and exercise. Common sense is still the best solution for longevity. Living to be old but unhealthy is not a desire for me. my 2ยข
Thank you for this great and informative web page

Posted by: Claude at August 26th, 2012 12:41 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.