The mainstream of aging research, at least in public, is characterized by a profound lack of ambition when it comes to treating aging as a medical condition. Researchers talk about slightly altering the trajectory of aging as though that is the absolute most that is possible, the summit of the mountain, and are in many cases ambivalent when it comes to advocating for even that minimal goal. It is this state of affairs that drove Aubrey de Grey and others into taking up advocacy and research, given that there are clear paths ahead to rejuvenation, not just a slight slowing of aging, but halting and reversing the causes of aging. Arguably embracing rejuvenation research programs would in addition cost less and take a much shorter span of time to produce results, since these programs are far more comprehensively mapped out than are efforts to produce drugs to alter the complex operations of metabolism so as to slightly slow the pace at which aging progresses. It is most frustrating to live in a world in which this possibility exists, yet is still a minority concern in the research community. This article is an example of the problem, in which an eminent researcher in the field takes a look at a few recently published books on aging research, and along the way reveals much about his own views on aging as an aspect of the human condition that needs little in the way of a solution. It is a terrible thing that people of this ilk are running the institutes and the funding bodies: this is a field crying out for disruption and revolution in the name of faster progress towards an end to aging.
How can we overcome our niggling suspicion that there is something dubious, if not outright wrong, about wanting to live longer, healthier lives? And how might we pursue longer lives without at the same time falling prey to quasiscientific hype announcing imminent breakthroughs? In order to understand why aging is changing, and what this means for our futures, we need to learn more about the aging process itself. As a biologist who specializes in aging, I have spent more than four decades on a quest to do exactly this. Not only have I asked why aging should occur at all (my answer is encapsulated in a concept called disposability theory), but I have also sought to understand the fastest-growing segment of the population - those aged 85 and above. The challenges inherent in understanding and tackling the many dimensions of aging are reflected in a clutch of new books on the topic. Are these books worth reading? Yes and no. They take on questions like: Can we expect increases in human longevity to continue? Can we speed them up? And, on the personal level, what can we do to make our own lives longer and healthier? If nothing else, these books and their varied approaches reveal how little we actually know.
To find out more about factors that can influence our individual health trajectories across ever-lengthening lives, my colleagues and I began, in 2006, the remarkable adventure of the still ongoing Newcastle 85+ Study, an extremely detailed investigation of the complex medical, biological, and social factors that can affect a person's journey into the outer reaches of longevity. For each individual, we determined whether they had any of 18 age-related conditions (e.g., arthritis, heart disease, and so on). Sadly, not one of our 85-year-olds was free of such illnesses. Indeed, three quarters of them had four or more diseases simultaneously. Yet, when asked to self-rate their health, an astonishing 78 percent - nearly four out of five - responded "good," "very good," or "excellent." This was not what we had expected. The fact that these individuals had so many age-related illnesses fit, of course, with the popular perception of the very old as sadly compromised. But the corollary to this perception - that in advanced old age life becomes a burden, both to the individuals themselves and to others - was completely overturned. Here were hundreds of old people, of all social classes and backgrounds, enjoying life to the fullest, and apparently not oppressed by their many ailments.
As for my stake in the enterprise, I began investigating aging when I was in my early 20s - well before I had any sense of my own body aging. Quite simply, I was curious. What is this mysterious process, and why does it occur? Everything else in biology seems to be about making things work as well as they can, so how is it that aging destroys us? Now that I am growing older myself, my research helps me understand my own body and reinforces the drive to live healthily - to eat lightly and take exercise - though not at the cost of eliminating life's pleasures. For all that I have learned about aging, my curiosity remains unabated. Indeed, it has grown stronger, partly because as science discovers more about the process, it reveals that there is ever more to learn, ever greater complexity to unravel, and partly because I am now my own subject: through new physical and psychological experiences in myself, I learn more about what older age is really like. I know all too well that the next phase of my life will bring unwelcome changes, and of course it must end badly. But the participants of the Newcastle 85+ Study have shown me that the journey will not be without interest.