The implementation of journalistic balance is a self-parodying genre of writing. In the case in which the scientific community is working towards saving countless lives, by implementing therapies targeting the underlying mechanisms of aging, the paint-by-numbers journalist and editor duo will dutifully find a curmudgeonly figure who thinks that everyone should just get on and die, and put in a few quotes in order to balance the article. The piece here is an example of exactly this phenomenon; it is left as an exercise for the reader to identify the other popular media checkboxes lazily checked in the course of its few pages. And one can still use this to say that the quality of articles on the development of therapies for aging is much better than it used to be! A low bar, but slowly rising. Still, it is hard to take the output of what passes for journalism these days at all seriously. Sadly all too many people do just that for every topic with which they have little familiarity.
The quest for eternal youth may not be new, but it is now bankrolled by some of the wealthiest individuals and corporations on Earth. Anti-ageing science works at the level of gene therapy, cell hacking and reconstituting human blood; the medical treatments at its heart are based on "bleeding edge" science and aimed at the mass market. Some focus on biological reprogramming: adding proteins known as Yamanaka factors to cells, causing them to revert to a previous state. Others look at genomic instability or the way DNA damage that accumulates over time might be repaired.
The entrepreneurs in this fledgling field are determined that the end of ageing will come via therapies approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA). The elixir of youth won't be a single drug, but a regimen of treatments that knock out different hallmarks of ageing and allow us to get older without losing our bodies and minds. We will still die: there will be accidents as well as diseases unrelated to age (children still get fatal cancers, after all). But death will become increasingly remote, and no longer preceded by years of inevitable decline. Its advocates argue that, once ageing is cured, the financial, medical, societal, and emotional burden of taking care of the elderly will disappear. But have these entrepreneurs thought about what a post-ageing world would look like? And if they have, would anyone want to live there?
Paul Root Wolpe, 64, director of the centre for ethics at Emory University (and a former senior bioethicist at NASA), told me that a world without ageing would be "an economic disaster". The argument some advocates make for its enormous social benefits is "a misdirection", he said. "I find their arguments extremely naive, sociologically unsupportable, and most importantly, deeply narcissistic. I've never heard a single plausible argument of how radical life extension would benefit society - only an egocentric desire not to die. The truth is, they want to stop ageing. They want to live healthily to 150."
In Wolpe's view, anti-ageing scientists and entrepreneurs minimise or ignore the profound implications of significantly increasing the human lifespan. "The International Monetary Fund has stated that an ageing population in Japan has led to a vanishing labour force, higher demands for social services, a shrinking tax pool, greater wealth disparities - and that's just from living what is currently our lifespan. If we increase it, all of those things would increase exponentially." But in the future envisaged by the biotech start-ups, we would work into our hundreds: an elderly population would still be a labour force. Wolpe had little patience for this idea. "That is a profoundly elite perspective."