Anti-Aging Medicine: Notes on a Controversy

The "anti-aging" marketplace demonstrates that it is quite possible to build a successful business, even a successful industry, on the basis of delivering something that doesn't actually exist. In this case, that phantom product is the means to reliably slow or turn back the aging process. Many of those in the industry are - or at least were at the outset - quite sincere about seeking to help people and produce meaningful benefits for their customers, but unfortunately once money starts rolling in due to substitutes and shams those original noble goals are always subverted.

Historically, the existence of the "anti-aging" marketplace has a lot to do with why the legitimate research community long suppressed public discussion of and work on interventions in the aging process. They did not want to be associated with snake oil salesmen in any way, shape, or form. This is becoming a matter of recent history now, increasingly irrelevant in the face of a zoo of long-lived laboratory animals and public support from notable scientists for the goals of slowing aging through metabolic alteration or reversing aging by repairing the cellular and molecular damage that causes degeneration.

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, however, so while the conflict between the scientific establishment and the "anti-aging" market is no longer dragging down and isolating legitimate longevity science in the same way it was, it is good to understand what happened over the past few decades: why progress was much slower than it might have been, and why it required a considerable struggle within the research community to open up public discussion of extending healthy human life spans. There is, after all, still a very strong "anti-aging" movement based on the same old lies and fraudulent products - it just isn't as much of an impediment to real scientific progress as was once the case, but that won't necessarily continue the way we'd like it to. This open access paper is in Portuguese, and the automated translation is of mixed quality, but still worth reading:

In academic and medical circles, it is certain that the strengthening of geriatrics and gerontology contributed to a much greater attention to aging. However, the path to a greater community for geriatrics and gerontology and aging sciences did not happen without setbacks. Despite the US community of biogerontologists (as well as geriatricians and other gerontologists) having developed since the late 1930s, some forty years later it was still stigmatized by the historical legacy of mythology and quackery that characterized the aspirations and practices of prolongevity. An aura of disbelief lasted until the mid-1970s in initiatives aimed at prolongevity, affecting any scientists that worked on aging, including gerontologists and geriatricians.

Now, in 1970, the demographic transition was already under way in the US, as in other core countries, and even then, the idea prevailed that a medicine and science of aging were illegitimate. However, since then, such an assumption is not longer the case, that change occurring alongside the growing number of seniors who demand specific attention, and who are attended by professionals of aging. In other words, one can say that the geriatric-gerontological field was a franchisee with access to the fields of science, and its legitimacy has been recognized as more was learned about aging.

But here we come to the year 2010, and a new course of events unexpectedly rushes over what seemed stabilized. The geriatric-gerontological field rid itself of the question of legitimacy, but this now returns, and from a direction in which it is least expected: since the mid-1990s, doctors - peers - are questioning whether the practice in geriatrics and gerontology are indeed the most effective in preventing the complications of aging. Announcing themselves to be in possession of something more innovative in terms of scientific action on aging, and identifying themselves as questioning the mainstream, practitioners of antiaging medicine are causing a stir among geriatricians and gerontologists. The latter accused the former of charlatanism and bad faith; the first and the second accused of denying patients the chances of aging well (an ideal of aging that has been carefully constituted and supported on the shoulders of geriatrics / gerontology to have legitimacy and recognition!).

In this article we will explore the roots of this controversy, with the intent to understand what is their place in the field of knowledge about aging and what it shows us about the production of our sociotechnical collective term that emphasizes the importance of science for the constitution of modern society. We start by explaining how geriatrics and gerontology were structured and legitimized as the science of aging, emphasizing the points that are targets of questioning by anti-aging medicine. We then look at the emergence of that other way of thinking about aging, which will allow us to get into the history of the controversy itself.


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