More Considerations of Strategy in Aging Research

The October 2012 issue of Rejuvenation Research is available online. I notice that the editorial in this issue comments on a recent Scientific American article in a useful fashion. That article examined the two positions on strategy held by by researchers in the mainstream of aging science, most of whom look to achieve only a modest slowing of aging through their work. Or at least, these are positions held in that portion of the community interested in extending life spans at all, which is probably at this point a majority but by no means all of the field:

One group believes lifespan can be extended by limiting diseases one at a time. ... The other group believes the actual underlying aging pathway itself can be slowed.

These positions within the mainstream are distinct from those of the smaller Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) camp and like-minded allies, researchers who seek to repair and reverse the root causes of aging rather than just slow it down a bit. The SENS viewpoint is in need of greater attention, however, as it remains overlooked by those who paint the field with broad brush strokes.

One point of this exercise is to note that there exists more than just the one strategic debate in aging research: it's isn't only a matter of arguing for the goal of rejuvenation versus the goal of slowing aging, though I see that as the most important of all such divisions in the scientific community, the debate that will determine whether those of us in middle age now will benefit from a meaningful extension of healthy life span. After all, the battle over whether or not to intervene at all in aging is still being fought to some degree, depressingly enough: until comparatively recently the scientific community would neither discuss nor sanction any discussion of engineering greater human longevity. Remember that this community is far from a monolith, however, and every position has its varied internal factions and smaller rifts.

In any case, here is a pertinent quote from the Rejuvenation Research editorial, penned by Aubrey de Grey:

The September 2012 issue of Scientific American includes a commentary contrasting two approaches to combating aging. Like almost all general-audience piece, and despite the best efforts of most experts in the field, it highlights the goal of life extension rather than stressing that any longevity benefits will be a side effect of health benefits ... The value of the article, though diminished thereby, is still substantial, in that it provides a clear description of the contrast between the "combat one disease at a time" approach generally taken by geriatricians and the holistic "combat aging itself" approach favored by most biogerontologists.

As those readers familiar with my work will know, I view both such approaches as highly unlikely to deliver substantial postponement of age-related ill health in the remotely foreseeable future, but not for the reasons generally given by the proponents of the other approach. Geriatricians reject combating of "aging itself" because they don't generally view aging as a medical condition at all, but instead merely view chronological age as a risk factor for various types of ill health. Biogerontologists, conversely, reject the "one disease at a time" approach because they believe that there will always be something - the very same "aging itself," of course - that will be a source of exponentially accelerating ill health however many specifics are defeated.

The SENS perspective is that it is inaccurate and misleading to draw a sharp distinction between "aging itself" and the specific aspects of age-related ill health, first because where one draws that distinction is arbitrary - Are foam cells atherosclerosis yet, for example? Are fatty streaks? - and second because the lifelong changes that drive ill health, and thus hold the the only logical claim to be lumped under the term "aging," are themselves not aspects of any meaningful unitary process, but are instead relatively independent processes occurring as side-effects of different aspects of metabolism.

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