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?