December 2013 Issue of Rejuvenation Research

The latest issue of Rejuvenation Research is out this month. In the editorial, Aubrey de Grey of the SENS Research Foundation returns once more to a topic that puzzles many of us: the pervasive public disinterest when it comes to medical research to enable longer lives accompanies by extended health and youth.

Selling Anti-Aging Research: The Perils of Mixed Messages

A truth universally acknowledged within gerontology, as within any scientific discipline, is that the funding necessary for research in a given field is forthcoming from public sources only to the extent that the goals of such research are favored by the general public. As such, it has been a persistent source of frustration that biogerontology research remains rather far from the holy grail of delivering truly effective medical intervention, and thus that decision-makers over governmental research funding tend to deprioritize such research.

I strongly believe, based on my own quite extensive interaction with people from all walks of life who (for example) attend my talks, that the "Tithonus error" (that postponing aging would extend ill-health rather than health span) underpins most of the public's ambivalence concerning our field, despite gerontologists' vocal attempts to correct it. But be that as it may, the facts are these: fully 56% of the US public are unenthusiastic about living longer.

Maybe it's mostly the Tithonus error, but I must not overstate that case: in my experience, even those who are disabused of that misconception are uncannily prone to fall back on some other objection to such work (whether it be overpopulation, boredom, immortal dictators, whatever).

Over the decade I've been writing on this topic, I haven't come up with any better ideas on how to address this issue than to keep on bootstrapping and persuading: growing the number of supporters, writing more material, spreading knowledge, raising funds to further the production of research results that will help to persuade more people. It's a grind, but sooner or later the old, wrong ideas will suddenly wither away in the face of a significant number of people willing to call them out. All advocacy goes this way: when a cause seems to emerge from nowhere in the course of a few years, you can be certain that advocates were plugging away for the prior ten or twenty years, laying the groundwork, building arguments and support, and persuading a critical mass of people to join in, slowly but surely.

We've seen significant progress in attitudes to longevity science and extended lives over the years since the Methuselah Foundation and SENS Research Foundation have been in existence. But I still wish I had a better magic argument to open the eyes of those who hold to their disinterest in living longer. I don't think it exists, however: it really isn't a matter of facts. We have plenty of those, and they all support longer lives and the medical research needed to create greater human longevity. It is the stubborn resistance to even acknowledge the message of the research community that proves frustrating: for some years now researchers have been straightforwardly presenting healthy life extension as a plausible result of near future research - and yet all too few people care to listen.


I can feel you frustration on this, but as someone perhaps a bit closer to the general public perspective, I can understand the apathy.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record... I think the general public will need some easily understandable and shocking proof to pay attention to the potential of healthspan extension research. Probably a mouse that is now 6 years old and in rude health and youth.

All the science arguments are too complicated for joe average public to understand. Well, a lot of people could understand if they took the time, but their time is already tied up in the rest of their lives.

Stem cells get a lot of funding because it is easy to understand "Take your cells, and make new body parts". And because our bodies come from a single cell anyway, so it has already been demonstrated. Cancer gets a lot of funding, because it has long been a major killer and just about everyone has a friend of relative who has died of it. Death by aging is much more nebulous unfortunately.

Not many scientists are willing to speak up about the potential of this research because there haven't been any real proof of concepts (at least to my knowledge). Of the seven SENS research areas, only death resistant cells have an actual study showing benefits when that damage is repaired (and that study in mice didn't extend the mice's lifespan).

But perhaps a few of the techniques being worked on (say mitochondrial gene replacement, death proof cell ablation, and inter cellular aggregate removal) will be tried in mice and will be enough to extend their lifespan. I wonder how likely that is in the next few years?

That would probably get the funding taps turned on a bit more.

Posted by: Jim at December 18th, 2013 11:35 PM

I meant to write "But perhaps a few of the techniques being worked on (say mitochondrial gene replacement, death proof cell ablation, and inter cellular aggregate removal) will be tried in mice IN COMBINATION and will be enough to extend their lifespan."

Posted by: Jim at December 18th, 2013 11:38 PM

I agree with Jim. People don't have anything to focus on now to allow them to understand what we're talking about. There will need to be at least one treatment that really does something for older people to make them feel younger and invigorated, not just living statistically longer with the usual crappy symptoms. Nobody cares about statistics about lifespan or avoidance of heart disease or whatever, but when it becomes a question of actually feeling younger and better *right now*, that will change things. Personally, my money would be on immune system rejuvenation, since it seems relatively feasible to identify broken immune cells and get rid of them, versus going in to every cell and fixing something like mitochondrial damage. But what do I know...very little.

Posted by: Will Nelson at December 19th, 2013 4:55 PM

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.