The Fear of Growing Old: Tithonus and Centenarians

It is thought that one of the greatest hurdles to growth in public support of longevity science is the fact that most people assume increased longevity through medicine would mean being old, frail, and in pain for longer. This is very much not the case, however: the goal is always to extend or restore the period of healthy life, and given that aging is an accumulation of damage in and between cells it might not even be possible to engineer a situation in which people are older for longer rather than younger for longer. Either you repair the underlying damage that causes aging by implementing something like the SENS research program, in which case people will be all-round healthier for longer, or you don't. In the latter case you have the present situation in mainstream medicine of an expensive, only marginally beneficial, and ultimately futile process of trying to keep heavily damaged machinery running at all.

The state of present mainstream medicine is what people see and what they assume to be the case in the future, however. It is strange that we live in a time of constant change, and yet the average fellow in the street assumes that the present is a good model for what lies ahead. The relationship between aging and medicine is about to change radically, as the research community for the first time works towards directly treating the causes of aging. But to make good progress here, to raise the necessary funds, the public must be on board and supportive in the same way as they are for stem cell research or cancer research. That has yet to happen, however, and this is why we need advocacy and persuasion.

The media obsesses over the inevitable "secret" that centenarians reveal as the reason for their exceptionally long life. Scientists study centenarians and their families to isolate the causes for longevity - so that we may be able to distribute it to everyone. But centenarians are not the key to unlocking the mysteries of health and longevity - on the contrary, they epitomise our fears of growing old.

In Greek mythology, mortality was the distinguishing feature between gods and men; gods were immortal while men suffered from death (that, and the whims of the gods above them). In the story, Eos, the goddess of the dawn falls in love with a mortal man called Tithonus. Eos cannot bear the thought that Tithonus will die, so she asks Zeus to make him immortal, to which he agrees. The only problem is that she forgot to ask for eternal youth. Tithonus cannot die, but he progressively suffers from all the ill health and frailties of old age.

Centenarians are the living embodiment of Tithonus' curse. Contrary to what the media would like to portray (and some studies), many centenarians suffer ill health and frailty associated with old age, which can also affect research. Most are wheelchair or bed-bound, many suffer from dementia, muscle loss, hearing loss, eyesight loss and lack control of their orifices. When given the choice between healthy life and long life with ill health, most people choose the former. Centenarians are not a mystery of nature; they are old people who happen to suffer the damages of ageing a bit longer than others.

If we are to grow old and remain in good health, we have three options. We can try to improve our metabolism such that it generates less harmful byproducts or we can find a way to clean these up these byproducts. Or, we can deal with the consequences of this accumulation of damage over time. Medicine has mainly focused on the third option, dealing with the consequences of ageing disease such as dementia, cancer and diabetes. But though we may have added few years to our lives, we certainly haven't added life to our years.



The more I read this blog the more it seems ridiculous that large sums of money aren't being spent to achieve vastly increased health and lifespans. But I guess that is because claims like those that the SENS foundation make are doubted.

Still hopefully some undeniable experimental proof will turn up soon. And even though the SENS foundation still has a measly budget of 4-5 million per year, any breakthrough will bring snowballing attention and funding.

Posted by: Jim at May 12th, 2014 9:24 AM
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