You Can't Fight Ageism by Pretending that Aging isn't Harmful

There is a certain mode of writing positively about aging, with the intent of opposing ageism, in which the author pretends that aging isn't a harmful process of decline in health and capabilities. It seems to me that the best practical solution for ageism is to build the medical technologies that enable older people to be just as physically and mentally capable as younger people. I'm not sure that anything else is likely to work, given the length of time over which all of the other forms of attempt have been made. While it is worthy goal to convince people that is inhumane to reject and persecute others simply because they are less capable, that undesirable aspect of human nature has persisted since prehistory, despite the best efforts of better individuals than you or I. Using technology to change the nature of the human condition seems more likely to succeed than any amount of persuasion and philosophy.

A report by the Royal Society For Public Health, "That Age Old Question," endeavors to expose ageism and help end discrimination against older people. While it does make a handful of valid points, however, it seems to suggest that sweeping the true nature of aging under the rug will help to end ageism. Everything in the report revolves around attitudes towards aging and how the authors think that these should change in order to eliminate age-related discrimination. There is no mention of aging as the chronic, progressive process of deterioration found in the scientific literature; there is not a word about medical research with the potential to prevent age-related diseases, nor is the importance of intervening on the root causes of aging to prevent diseases, and indirectly, ageism, even hinted at.

Quite frankly, if you were an alien who had never heard of aging before and you read this report, you'd likely get the impression that the ill health of humans in old age is just a myth fueled by stereotypes and negative perception of the phenomenon. The poor mental and physical health of old age are described as being merely "negative stereotypes" very early on in the report's foreword, yet later sections of the report suggest bringing together nursing homes and youth clubs to better integrate generations; however, if nursing homes for the elderly exist, age-related ill health is obviously not merely a stereotype.

Similarly, while individual elderly people may be able to make meaningful contributions to the economy before age-related disease takes their lives, the economic burden of an aging population is a real problem, not just a stereotype. It is hard to believe that any society would come up with retirement if elderly people's ability to work was mostly comparable to that of younger people; it is similarly hard to believe that governments and economists who worry about the expected surge in the elderly population of the next few decades, and about the consequences that they might have on our pension systems, are worrying about something that originates in prejudice rather than biology - or that they're not worrying at all but didn't go through the trouble of letting the rest of us know.

To be clear, the authors of the report don't openly oppose medical research against aging. Given that no mention of it was made, it's unclear whether they're even aware of the possibility and if they would endorse it or not. Their intent to undo age-based discrimination is genuine, if misguided. Ending ageism is nearly as important as ending aging; for one, if ageism wasn't a thing, rejuvenation advocates wouldn't have to spend time debating people who think that older people living too long would lead to cultural stagnation because of their alleged "old people mentality". However, ageism won't be defeated by sugarcoating aging, which only adds insult to injury.



I can't really think of anything more ageist than the notion that old people don't deserve to live much longer and don't deserve medical treatments that would keep them in good health.

Posted by: Arcanyn at June 20th, 2018 10:28 AM

Nicola Bagalà has been writing some really good articles about the societal impacts of aging. Calling out such fallacies as the term "Healthy Aging" and now he's tackling an even more difficult subject, ageism.

Ageism never made any sense to me even as a kid. We all get old, why pick on people because of it? Its the weirdest lapse in logic I have come across.

Nicola hits the nail on the head with this one and I'm hoping he keeps up with his aging and society themes he's been writing lately.

We still have a lot of work ahead of us.

Posted by: Mark Borbely at June 20th, 2018 10:29 AM

Thanks for posting - can't really contribute since I am just learning. I've been reading up on regulatory T cells and it appears redox signalling modulates T reg function, so the articles you linked are interesting.

CANanonimity posts a lot on thioredoxin, IIRC.

Posted by: CD at June 20th, 2018 1:07 PM

An exercise in virtue signaling by an organization whose opinion does not matter to me. And that applies to both the RSPH and Rifinery29.

Posted by: JohnD at June 20th, 2018 1:16 PM

Also out today is a very nice paper by John Lewis (Oisin Bio) in nature communications (open access) demonstrating some new gene targets for cancer:

Quantitative in vivo whole genome motility screen reveals novel therapeutic targets to block cancer metastasis

Posted by: Chris at June 20th, 2018 2:37 PM

@ Chris - re: the Thioredoxin paper; having reviewed it, it looks like a healthspan only effect to me, which implies the rise in oxidative stress is a symptom, not the cause of aging.

From a practical standpoint, controlling your oxidative stress will keep you healthy, but is unlikely to extend your maximum LS.

That's my take, anyway.

Posted by: Mark at June 21st, 2018 5:18 AM

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