It helps to know a little bit about the views of the author S. Jay Olshansky when reading this piece. He is one of the scientists behind the Longevity Dividend initiative, the goals of which can be summarized as greatly increasing government funding for current mainstream programs at the National Institute on Aging, with the aim of adding a few years to life expectancy over the next few decades. For those of us who seek far larger outcomes, and a way to turn back aging rather than merely slowing it down, he wishes us luck, but doesn't seem convinced that the goal of additional decades through rejuvenation research after the SENS model is practical.
Olshansky has long been vitriolically opposed to the "anti-aging" marketplace of the past few decades, packed as it is sellers of fraudulent pills and potions, and believes it a baleful influence that damages the prospects for serious science. You might look at the Silver Fleece awards that he conducted for some years, for example. I think that went a long way to determining his early position of opposition to SENS rejuvenation research and related advocacy for actuarial escape velocity, the unbounded increase in life span that would follow any meaningful first implementation of rejuvenation therapies. That is an opposition that has mellowed somewhat, though Olshansky clearly still strongly dislikes talk of radical life extension.
From my point of view, this unwillingness to seriously consider sizable outcomes and potentials is a part of the problematic legacy of the last generation of researchers in this field. It is why they suppressed interest in efforts to treat aging as a medical condition. It is why they failed to make significant progress despite all the evidence in hand pointing to the causes of aging. It is why people like Aubrey de Grey and others involved in SENS had to come in from outside the field to shake things up.
The story of Faust has become a metaphor for a promise or tradeoff that at first seems appealing, but with time is revealed to be a bad bargain. The story of human aging and the modern rise in longevity has remarkable correlates to the story of Faust, but with some interesting twists. Here's the connection. The first longevity revolution that began in the middle of the nineteenth century occurred primarily because of gains made against infant and child mortality resulting from advances in basic public health. This was followed by reductions in death rates from cardiovascular disease late in the twentieth century. A quantum leap in life expectancy of 30 years ensued at lightning speed. Nothing in history has ever come close to the magnitude of this benefit to humanity. While there is no disputing the value of life and health extension from the first longevity revolution, rarely does something so desirable come without a Faustian-like price.
Along with 30 years of additional life and the opportunity to see almost all our children live long enough to have families of their own, humanity also witnessed a subsequent dramatic escalation in the prevalence of age-related chronic, fatal and disabling diseases and their attendant costs and heartache. That is, we now live long enough to experience the aging of our bodies. In retrospect, it was worth every part of the bargain. But Mephistopheles isn't done with us. Like a street magician that lets you win the first game, and then sucks you into a bigger con with larger stakes, or a drug dealer that gets you hooked with free samples, the next much costlier offer is before us now. We've had our taste of longevity, but now we want more - much more at any cost, and Mephistopheles knows this.
With life itself as the most precious commodity there is, it's easy to see the next con. The first is the rise of what has become known as the antiaging industry - a multibillion dollar enterprise designed to convince us that the secret to the fountain of youth is already within our grasp. Pay dearly for their elixirs now and wait for the promise of a longer life to appear decades later. What do you think the chances are that your investment will pay off? The catch is that the alleged benefits don't appear, if at all, until after the longevity salesmen has left the scene and pocketed your cash. What's different today from the cons of the past is the rise of the scientific study of aging and genuine opportunity offered for healthy life extension. The modern practitioners of anti-aging medicine try and sell the public what appear to be genuine scientific interventions based on real science, before they're proven to be safe and efficacious: "whenever science makes a discovery, the devil grabs it while the angels are debating the best way to use it."
The second response to an insatiable desire for more life is also predictable, but the danger could be an even worse Faustian bargain than that posed by the antiaging industry. The method used to manufacture the first longevity revolution is known as the "infectious disease model" - that is, as soon as a disease appears, attack it with everything in the medical arsenal. Beat the disease down, and once you succeed, push the patient out the door until they face their next challenge; then beat that one down. The formula is simple - repeat until failure. This model was perfect for infectious diseases and effective at first for chronic degenerative diseases, and no doubt there is still progress to be made, but evidence has emerged that this approach is likely to run out of steam. The application of an infectious disease model to chronic fatal and disabling diseases associated with aging is Mephistopheles latest "bargain." The irony behind this new bargain (otherwise known as the current medical model of disease) is that the medical community advocating for disease eradication doesn't even recognize the health consequences of success.
The bargain today is crystal clear - we're being offered incrementally smaller amounts of survival time at a very high cost, and the prospect that most of the additional months and years of life will be riddled with frailty and disability. Keep in mind that the human body has no designer; it was not constructed for long-term use; and our Achilles heels are already visible - neurological conditions such as Alzheimer's disease and related conditions are associated with non-replicating neurons; and muscles and joints have a difficult time navigating the ravages of biological time. The Faustian bargain before us now is, in exchange for small doses of additional life, humanity will experience a suite of fatal and disabling conditions expressed at later ages that rob us of what we hold most precious - our mental and physical functioning.
What's the solution? Don't sign the contract! A clue about what we should do instead was presented to us decades ago. In the mid-1950s, it was suggested that attacking aging itself rather than the diseases associated with it offered the greatest hope in warding off the infirmities of old age. In 2006, my colleagues and I extended this line of reasoning by coining the phrase "the Longevity Dividend" to describe the economic and health benefits that would accrue to individuals and societies if we extend healthy life by slowing the biological processes of aging. This idea was distinctive because we proposed to extend healthy life by shifting our emphasis from disease management to delayed aging. Recent advances in biogerontology suggested that it is plausible to delay aging in people. For example, "senolytics" may offer a unique opportunity to forestall the ravages of aging through the systematic elimination of cells that are still alive, but which no longer function normally.
The Longevity Dividend is an approach to public health based on a broader strategy of fostering health for all generations by developing a new horizontal model to health promotion and disease prevention. Unlike the current vertical approach to disease that targets individual disorders as they arise, the Longevity Dividend model seeks to prevent or delay the root causes of disease and disability by attacking the one main risk factor for them all-biological aging. Evidence in models ranging from invertebrates to mammals suggests that all living things have biochemical mechanisms influencing how quickly they age, and these mechanisms are adjustable.
Slowing down the processes of aging - even by a moderate amount - will yield dramatic improvements in health for current and future generations. Advances in the scientific knowledge of aging may thus create new opportunities that allow us, and generations to follow, to live healthier and longer lives than our predecessors. By embracing a new model for health promotion and disease prevention in the twenty-first century, we can give the gift of extended health and economic wellbeing to current and all future generations. What is the cost of this new more effective model of primary prevention that will save the world trillions in health care costs? A fraction of the basic research cost required to create sixth generation fighter jets; or the salary from just one quarterback in the National Football League.