One of the more depressing consequences of degenerative aging is the pervasive ageism of our societies. It is taken as read that the old are worth less than the young, are less deserving, their wants and desires less meaningful, their rights to the pursuit of life and happiness weak to nonexistent. This is something that even the old themselves are largely sold on, one of those shared cultural myths that isn't so much taught as absorbed and spread invisibly, clinging on to every story and conversation as a cloud of assumptions and implicit judgments of value.
The value of a life diminishes with age, or so goes the belief - and as we are creatures of hierarchy and position, it's a short step from there to trampling on the old in any number of ways. If the young get to it before the old trample themselves, in any case. Ageism is as much a matter of people telling themselves that they are of little value as anything else.
Below you'll find the rather gloomy viewpoint of a near-70-year-old, informed by the Tithonus Error, the incorrect view that extended life achieved through biotechnology will result in more and increasingly decrepit old age rather than more vigor and youth as is in fact the case. As Aubrey de Grey asked in a recent editorial, why do people completely ignore what the research community says on this topic? Or for that matter, why do they ignore history? The incidental lengthening of human life achieved over the past two centuries through general improvement in medical technologies has been an extension of youth rather than an extension of old age.
The public doesn't stick its head in the sand in the same way for heart disease or Parkinson's research. One might well ask why this happens for aging. Here is a telling sort of a quote when it comes to self-value:
Maybe it's time to ask medical science to shut it down already. Maybe there's something about our bodies that has a sell-by date. Maybe we're not supposed to stare vacantly into space while eating up money and time. There is so much else for science to be doing. There are the cancers that get people in their 30s and 40s and 50s. There are orphan diseases, with not enough sufferers to warrant full-scale research efforts. There are those wounded in war and the challenges they present. Surely all of these matters deserve more attention than how to make sure a 110-year-old person lives to be 125.
I speak myself as someone on the cusp of 70. I am not fond of disease and decay, and I think medical science should be all over finding cures for whatever I've got. But I have visited nursing homes, and seen the floors of lost people, technically alive but not aware of their surroundings, bewildered by everything.
Is this really a vision of the future that you want to have, or you want your parents to have? The geriatric lifestyle seems an awful lot like just taking up space. That's not really anybody's ambition for their end-of-life situation, but it happens anyway. People run out of friends and loved ones; they disappear from memory and from society. And yet they survive.
The goal of longevity science is to roll out ways to slow, halt, and reverse aging: making people healthy and physiologically younger for longer, not older and increasingly frail for longer. Researchers are all agreed on that goal, and say as much in their publications and to the press. Yet as you can see, there remains something of a disconnect - the message has yet to come through to the public at large.