The Trouble With Popular Journalism and Life Extension Science

The US popular press turns out a few articles each year on the topic of longevity science, and most are intrinsically flawed. The problem here is that your average journalist will structure such a piece as a partial survey of all aspects of a topic that are either easily noticed - or easily interviewed - and which seem applicable to the general theme. All of these items are given equal weight, however, so there is no real distinction made between serious research into therapies to treat aging, frivolous pronouncements by health gurus, the "anti-aging" supplement industry, efforts to produce calorie restriction mimetics, research into the genetics of aging, practicing calorie restriction and exercise, and so forth. All of these absolutely night-and-day different things are treated as though they are of equal import and consequence, all just the same sort of widget clustered together in the same box.

Even positions and disputes between researchers and people outside the scientific community are flattened into equality in such an article. Thus outright nonsense is ranked equally in importance with serious research, and research that might greatly extend life is placed at the same level as research that cannot possibly achieve that goal. Simple good health practices that can add a few years to life are treated as being just as valuable and important as work on ways to create actual, working rejuvenation treatments that could extend healthy life by centuries. This is the poisonous rubric of journalistic balance at work. Somewhere along the way sense is dispensed with and meaning thrown out.

It is like reading a tourist guide to your home town written by someone who has never set foot there. It is a mere echo of reality, a fiction using real names and in which all of the useful data is omitted and obscured. Of course every subject is covered just as poorly by the media, not just the one I happen to know something about. It is simply hard to discern when you are unfamiliar with the topic at hand - and this is something to bear in mind while reading the news.

The even-handed pretense that everything has the same level of significance begins with the subtitle in this article and goes on from there. This practice is one of the many things that we seek to change through advocacy: to raise the level of awareness to the point at which the press will begin to include some hierarchy of usefulness in their coverage of longevity science. So here I'll just quote a SENS-related portion of this article, and note that the rest exhibits the issues mentioned above:

So You Want to Live Forever: Immortality through advanced technology and primitive diet

Aubrey de Grey believes that the current approach of geriatric medicine to the systemic breakdowns that aging entails is "pitiful." "Cardiovascular disease is the number-one killer in the West today, and we know that it's caused by fatty deposits in the major arteries. So we try stents or manipulating cholesterol levels with Lipitor. But we know now that the problem isn't so much cholesterol as oxidized cholesterol [small, dense, chemically-modified particles that the aging human body isn't able to deal with via its own natural enzymes]. Oxidized cholesterol isn't properly processed, that is, carried away by the enzymes, so it poisons the arteries."

He maintains that his SENS-sponsored research, some of it conducted on the foundation's premises and some in university laboratories, has pointed to a better way to clear that "bad" cholesterol out of clogged arteries: "We've been able to identify genes and enzymes in bacteria that we should be able to inject into our own human cells to bring about this cleansing process," de Grey explained. "In 2006-2007 we succeeded in identifying some of them, and we've been able to have that research published. We put extra enzymes that kill bad cells into a human cell culture, and they worked. They're the kind of [bacteria] that we need to fix problems in the human body. Then we can work on arteriosclerosis in mice, and then we'll have clinical trials in humans.

"The problem right now is that people think of aging as a universal phenomenon, but diseases such as heart disease are thought of as separate phenomena. But they're universal! Ninety-nine percent of the money spent on age-related research is spent on attempts to cure those diseases. But you can't cure people of side effects; you have to be able to cure aging itself. So what we want to see is preventative medicine, periodically cleaning up certain areas. Let's take Alzheimer's. We know that there are three factors: senile plaques in the brain, tangles in neurons, and cell death. We solved the plaque problem 15 years ago. You can clean up the plaques​ - ​but no cognitive goals for patients are being met. That's because we don't know the role that plaques play or their cause. Aging is this multifaceted. What we need to do is clean up lots of things at the same time. Initially, this could be a cleanup every 10 years. Then later, we might develop injections or oral medications. Right now, though, we have a 50-50 chance of getting it all into place in about 25 years."

Indeed, de Grey is confident that if we can figure out how to repair just seven bodily systems prone to breakdown​ - ​ranging from chromosomal mutations over time to protein junk accumulated from the cell disintegration that accompanies aging​ - there is no reason for any of us to die. The only obstacle he sees to our living, say, at least 5,000 years (unless we're unlucky enough to be hit by a car or whatever will substitute for a car in 7000 a.d.) is the money that SENS and its affiliated scientists committed to the hope of realizing eternal or near-eternal life need to develop those complex repair systems that they envision. "If we had ten times the money we have now, we could work at three times the speed," de Grey told me.


These articles always seem like they are written by the same person and they always make reference to that Mesopotamian myth of Gigla-whoever. What relevance that has to modern medicine I'll never know.

Posted by: Michael at May 3rd, 2014 7:05 PM

Sort of like if they mentioned Icarus every time someone wrote something about aeroplanes.

Posted by: Arcanyn at May 5th, 2014 4:02 AM

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