Trapped by the Conviction that an Extended Life Means Older For Longer, Not Younger For Longer

The belief that extending life through new medical science will lead to people who spend their additional years becoming ever more decrepit and frail is widespread and hard to shake. Scientists have told the public over and again that this is not going to be the outcome: any successful treatment for the causes of aging will produce patients who are younger than their years. Extending life will inevitably mean extending youthful, healthy life, because aging is just an accumulation of damage. The medical conditions that we call age-related diseases are just late manifestations of very high levels of damage. The only sound way to extend life is through reduction or repair of this damage, and that extends the period of health, pushing back the onset of medical conditions and deterioration.

But it doesn't seem to matter how many times this is repeated by members of the research community. People just aren't listening. The article quoted below is a microcosm of this larger picture: an author who hears what is said about aging, medicine, and healthy life, and cruises right on past to conclude with the same fear of extended years of frailty that he started with:

The idea of defeating old age and even death has been with us for a long time. In Greek mythology, there was a handsome young fellow called Tithonius who was in love with Eos, the Goddess of Dawn. Aware that he was getting older while she remained young and beautiful forever, he asked her to make him immortal. She couldn't do it herself but passed on the request to Zeus, who obligingly granted it. Unfortunately, Tithonius had asked only for immortality, not for eternal youth. So he became a horrible-looking old man, suffering aches and pains and unable to die. Eos took pity on him and turned him into a grasshopper, presumably an immortal one. Motto: be careful of what you ask from the gods.

The possibility of extending life far beyond what is now its usual term is apparently becoming a reality. Of course, thanks to medical advances, this has been happening for some time. Most of us can already expect to live quite a bit beyond the Bible's allotted span of 70 years. But the science is marching quickly. Aubrey de Grey, co-founder of SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence), believes that we can eliminate the symptoms of ageing, and live for as long as 1,000 years. Ninety per cent of us apparently die of what is nothing more than old age - bits wearing out and all that - and this, he says, is unnecessary. A thousand years may seem a touch extravagant, but we are already accustomed to being fitted with spare parts that help to keep us going. Then that great killer, cancer, is usually, though not always, a disease of old age, and, if/when a cure is found, then that will be another cause of death that has been abolished.

Now, most of us are quite in favour of staying alive, so long as our bodies and minds keep functioning with reasonable efficiency. For many the real fear is dementia, and most of the over-70s I know will say that if that happens and the mind crumbles, they hope that somebody will be kind enough to put a pillow over their face and press down hard. Unfortunately, for obvious and respectable reasons, few are ready to oblige. Nevertheless, many will agree with me that it's preferable to go to the grave than to go nuts.

However, assuming that the life-extension scientists can also find ways of fending off dementia, how do we feel, individually and as a society, about the prolongation of life? Are we happy about the prospect of so lop-sided a society? Aubrey de Grey, with the enthusiasm of a pioneer, says he hopes to make it possible for people of 90 to wake up feeling as ready to go as they did when they were 30, and with no greater chance of not waking up the next day as they had 60 years previously. However, he admits that this transformation will require "hi-tech intervention", which is what he says he is working on.

It's quite possible that the life-extended might be as useless and miserable as Swift's Strulbrugs. Why prolong life, some sage once asked, save to prolong pleasure? Why indeed? Can the life-extension zealots assure us of continuing pleasure? I don't know. Nobody knows. But evidently the prospect of life-extension is real. We had better start thinking about it. Will it make for individual happiness and social contentment? If not, shouldn't we oldies get ready to shuffle off the mortal coil? One thing is sure: few of us want to end up like Tithonius, condemned to live in decrepitude and misery. Worse than Tithonius indeed, there being no kindly former lover and goddess on hand to change us into a grasshopper.



Perhaps this is again a credulity problem. No one has ever successfully been made to look younger by medical treatments (there are treatments like botox and hollywood facelifts, but these tend to just make people look weird).

Yes it is annoying that the public are too busy/lazy to understand the underlying science and just demand visual proof, but it is what it is. I think the necessary science behind SENS will actually get done before any significant enough faction of the public will back longevity research without a visual demonstration.

Posted by: Jim at July 9th, 2014 8:37 AM

Viewed from the perspective and bias of a 75 year old man, which the author is, the commentary is not so surprising. It is probably a selfish perspective, but it is not a misguided or uneducated perspective, it is very unlikely that advances will be made to actually *reverse* aging in the author's lifetime.

Posted by: JohnD at July 9th, 2014 8:46 AM

I still can't figure out why "the public" matters? It's just an excuse for a mostly pathetic grassroots effort. There are middle of nowhere county politicians who raise more campaign funds than SENS every year.

The problem starts and ends with each and everyone of US.

Posted by: johnathan at July 9th, 2014 8:49 AM

@Johnathan - I'm not to sure why you are comparing fund raising for medical research to fund raising for a political campaign. Interest groups fund political campaigns so that their candidate can make favorable laws or decisions in their interests once in office. Medical researchers cannot do this.

Posted by: Jim at July 9th, 2014 9:08 PM

Seriously, just frickin' produce results. Take an old mouse, and make it functionally "young" again, to where it resembles a much younger mouse. Repeat the process and move on to humans. Take an elderly person and make them look and function like a much younger person. Heck, you don't even have to do this across the board. Just make, say, their heart more youthful and strong. Or their muscles and joints. Just show some freakin' results. Do that, and people will take notice and get excited.

Posted by: IntelligentAndWise at July 9th, 2014 10:53 PM

Jim's comments above are spot on, IMO. If the public sees something truly effective on cosmetic issues, they will respond. We are visual creatures and we are shallow ones as well. Harness that and this will awaken the minds of the masses.

Posted by: Jersey Jones at July 10th, 2014 9:36 AM


Obama and Romney raised $1.15+ billion from individual contributors. $313 million of it was from small individual contributions (27%).

It's a fractal pattern from local elections to youth baseball teams.

Regardless, it's beside the point.

SENS embodies the most important mission and ideal known to man. Yet, they struggle to raise funds. Why?

Posted by: jonathan at July 10th, 2014 9:50 AM

To extend my point further:

We don't need millions and millions of people contributing.

We need a few hundred thousand supporters who will go to battle.

What efforts are taking place to make this happen? Point me to OUR army.

You can't. It doesn't exist and that is a serious problem.

Posted by: jonathan at July 10th, 2014 10:01 AM

Everyone in this thread is right. I've been saying for years that we need to smash people's perceptions of what's possible by putting real effort into bonafide cosmetic rejuvenation. Usher in a society where a fifty year old can look twenty five and it won't be long before the world demands they feel twenty five also. We have to destroy the illusion that chronological age and biological age are the same thing.

As for our funding, I agree it is pathetic. Aubrey is a good philosopher and a hard working, articulate spokesperson, but one need only look at the SENS website to see that they are not an organisation that has their shit together. Google are yet to get anywhere near them and there's a reason for this. A significant portion of their funding comes from De Grey's inheritance for goodness sake. The public are infuriating with their oft repeated fallacies and idiotic knee-jerk bias against anything resembling progress, but that doesn't change the fact that supporters of SENS are scattershot, disorganised and frankly really, really shitty at advocacy.

Posted by: Serge at July 10th, 2014 2:34 PM

I wanted to post a similar comment with few that were posted above. My own perception is similar with theirs, that while SENS might have a great long term strategy, they fall short on producing something "right now".

If they can do simple things to prove that some of their large and complex solutions works in humans, I'm sure people will donate a lot.

Myself, I donated couple times small sums to them, because I believe they are in the right path, however if they can show something consistent and "palpable" lots of people with serious money will invest in them.

SENS needs to tailor their message for people that understand simple things. If SENS prove couple (even though not complete) solutions - and I'm 100% sure that is possible for the stage they are at right now with their research - money will come in large amounts. They need to change their strategy to also achieve short term visible goals, while working on the long term as well.

Somebody that has a connection to SENS please pass this comment to them, to wake them up.

Posted by: alc at July 10th, 2014 6:12 PM

I'd like to respond to Serge and alc. Folks: you seem to assume that it's pretty easy to generate the results you describe, and thus that the only reason we haven't done so is that we are asleep. Exactly why do you think it's easy? Separately, is there anything else that you would change about the way we go about our advocacy?

Posted by: Aubrey de Grey at July 10th, 2014 7:51 PM


Delighted to get a reply.

As I said I think you're a wonderful spokesperson.

However, the impression I get about SENS foundation in general is that they're not very good communicators. To give but one example, there is a video up on the front page of your website ('SENS animated' is the title) that is absolutely unintelligible. I literally cannot see how it adds any value or why it's there, especially when it's likely the first thing people click on. On the other hand, the message I get from your lectures, debates and interviews is very, very clear. I'm not sure how interested you are in things like that or how much they matter to you, and I imagine it's also possible you're simply too busy to get involved with such matters. But for what it's worth I feel the message seems to be getting lost anytime you're not on the microphone, and the result is that SENS foundation still ends up seeming flaky and scifi to the casual observer. I do have to wonder if this kind of thing is not representative. What do you think is keeping people from supporting your organisation in greater numbers?

Having said all that, my criticism was as much intended for the entire grass roots 'anti aging' movement (of which I'd consider myself a part) as it was for any one organisation. I'm not sure what the answer is, but I do know I see many causes gaining vastly more traction than ours ever seems capable of with vastly less to recommend them. One thing that I think is relevant is that the community is more or less an online echochamber of nerds such as myself preaching to the already assembled choir and framing our case by way of rational arguments more fit for the philosophy classroom than winning any respectable propaganda war. We're too smart for our own good.

We need communicators, entertainers and trendsetters on board. We need to start appealing to emotion as opposed to mere logic. Logic won't win this fight. The logical case for SENS has already been perfected, and nobody is showing up to the party.

There's nothing wrong with the product we're selling, so something is clearly wrong with the pitch.

Posted by: Serge at July 11th, 2014 4:56 AM

The "cosmetic rejuvenation first" strategy has been evoked earlier. But is that even possible to fork out from SENS' research goals?
I mean, would selectively favouring skin rejuvenation fit SENS' grand scheme of things? If yes, to which extent would it be desirable?
Certainly, showing people they can look younger would be a great publicity stunt, encouraging not only further funding of SENS but also an explosion of the interest in rejuvenation approaches - e.g. ushering a dramatic reorientation of cosmetic firms' business model (and these guys are loaded with cash).
However if such reorientation of the SENS strategy were to hamper the overall progress of the planned research, that could be problematic. Just a cautionary word here, I have no clue how exactly this would impact the existing research.

Now, regarding advocacy.

I think it's a bit unfair to ask SENS to devote equal efforts on both research and advocacy. Sure, they may make improvements in the way they communicate, but most of the advocacy effort must come from us, the citizens & taxpayers.
The main idea is this: they (SENS) perform the research, and we (citizens of every country) encourage their actions through financial and socio-political actions.
And such effort on our part hasn't really been done. Exactly as Jonathan said above: "Point me to OUR army. You can't. It doesn't exist and that is a serious problem."

Who will fund the full-page adverts in Le Monde, Die Zeit, The New York Times, The Guardian...? On billboards?
Who will write the advocacy opinion pieces in local and regional magazines? Who will raise the rejuvenation question at political meetings?
That should be us. But we don't have what it takes do launch such initiatives.

If you look at rejuvenation research, the go-to institution is basically SENS. They're not the only ones in the field, but they're the most visible and most focused.
Now, how about the grassroots institution advocating the whole concept of rejuvenation? Who's advertising, in a visible, efficient and coordinated manner, the idea of combatting senescence?
Well, there's the Longevity Alliance. But there's also the Campaign Against Aging, the Coalition to Extend Life, the Science for Life Extension... oh and there's also the "immortality" fellows, whose very name hampers our own message.
So, there's no single laymen-led advocacy group with enough members, enough brand name, enough organisation to show the world that rejuvenation isn't just a scientist or novelist pipe-dream; but that we, the general public, are deeply convinced it must be done. And that we, from all over the world, are committed to support SENS.

There needs to be a citizen-led SENS backer. A big one, not a myriad of small associations.
In order to be visible, to be heared, to be taken seriously, to have a political weight (we are a mass of voters, we have to make SENS a political priority just like AIDS or Cancer), we need to unite.

SENS itself could help in the consolidation of all existing associations. Maybe Aubrey and his colleagues could connect with those associations' leaders and facilitate discussions amongst them.
Then, the resulting bigger grassroots association could continue the momentum, by getting more members, a better structure, making more impact, getting more credibility.
In turn, this would mean more funding and visibility for SENS.

That's how I see it. Research-focused SENS on the one hand, advocacy-focused "SENS-backing single grassroots association" on the other.

Posted by: Nico at July 11th, 2014 7:43 PM

Serge: I am abundantly interested in this kind of thing, and indeed I spend a lot more of my time on honing our message and getting it out there more effectively than I do on the science (which I can delegate much more easily). I would be grateful if you and others would communicate any specific criticisms you may have (such as about that video) directly to us at the contact form on - that's the best way to get the information to the relevant people. As for the more general question, well, of course you already know my answer - there is hugely entrenched resistance to hearing this message because people have made their peace with aging and don't want to reopen the fight. As such, it's not at all clear that there is something wrong with the pitch: it may simply be that there is no better pitch and the only solution is a combination of incremental scientific progress and repeat advertising.

Nico: the main problem with going the cosmetic route is that there are other big players in that space who are much better placed than us to show superficially impressive short-term results. The fact that their methods won't "scale" is then lost in the noise.

Posted by: Aubrey de Grey at July 15th, 2014 9:56 AM

Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. 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.