TCS Daily

Aging Is Getting Old

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - July 6, 2005 12:00 AM

People have been getting older since the beginning of time. Some people have always been tired of it, but there seem to be more and more people who want to do something about it. At the moment, though, there's more talk than action. But researcher Aubrey de Grey thinks there should be a lot more talk, as well as a lot more action.


Writing in Nature, de Grey observes:


A perennial complaint in biogerontology, and one whose legitimacy I would be the last to dispute, is that public funding for ageing research is far lower than it should be. Such funding has roughly kept pace with biomedical research spending as a whole, but much more is warranted because postponement of ageing would have a far greater impact on public health and healthcare spending than postponement of any or all of the major age-related diseases. Here, I discuss whether our obstinately modest funding is due, as most of my biogerontologist colleagues evidently feel, to a failure on our part to communicate the scientific and biomedical realities to our political paymasters, and is therefore best rectified by continuing to repeat the arguments we have used for decades until they sink in. I argue that it is instead because those arguments are genuinely weak.


De Grey says, and I agree, that the weakest of these arguments -- well, it's really a slogan, more than an argument -- is the oft-repeated phrase from gerontologists: "Aging is not a disease."


Actually, it pretty much is a disease. It takes healthy vigorous people who can take care of themselves, and it turns them into frail weaklings who require lots of (expensive) supportive care until they expire from some condition to which it has made them more susceptible.


As I've mentioned here before, I've been spending a lot of time in nursing homes lately, and it's quite obvious that the people there have something wrong with them; to suggest otherwise is, I think, little more than a species of denial.


Aging is a disease, a disorder, a killer. We should be doing something about it.


What's more -- as de Grey notes -- it appears likely that with a bit of work we'll soon be able to do something about it, to treat it with technologies readily extrapolatable from current capabilities. (This is where the "more money" part comes in.) But when people are told that aging isn't a disease, they're not likely to come up with money for treatments. Non-diseases don't call for treatments.


Speaking as an outsider, it seems to me that a lot of people in the gerontological community suffer from habits of thought acquired back when such treatments weren't on the radar screen, as part of an effort to distance their genuine scientific work on aging from the bogus nostrums offered by quacks and charlatans since the beginning of time.


That desire for distance is understandable, and even laudable. But it's worth noting that many things once the domain of quacks and charlatans -- baldness cures or remedies for impotence, for example -- have since been achieved by solid science. (And have made some people very rich in the process). In fact, almost every major scientific achievement, from the germ theory of medicine to hormone therapies to powered flight, has displaced charlatans in the process.


To let the quacks and charlatans set the terms of the debate, and even to drive scientists completely out of some fields of research, seems to me to be a species of cowardice, and certainly at odds with the tradition of scientific inquiry. And perhaps it's worse than that.


The quacks and charlatans, after all, may not be worth much in terms of delivering on their promises. But they occupy a field because there's demand. People bought goat-gland implants for impotence because they wanted a cure. That was proof that there was demand for Viagra. People smeared various appalling concoctions on their heads to no effect before minoxidil appeared, but though they were ripped off, it was proof that there was a demand for baldness cures.


What's more, but delivering where the quacks and charlatans couldn't, these products actually put the crooks out of business, advancing the reputation of science at the expense of the frauds. That seems to me to be an admirable goal, and I hope that biogerontologists will take heed.


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