Which age-related disease would you like to die of?

If you’ll have a look at this article, you’ll find out that doctors and researchers are trying to get a supposedly ageing-delaying drug to be approved approved for clinical trials. Forget about the science for a moment: it doesn’t matter if it’s about just delaying ageing or reversing it, or if it’ll work or not. I would like to focus on two other aspects of this instead.

The first aspect is indubitably positive: as the researchers themselves put it, it’s as clear as the day that “current treatments for diseases related to ageing ‘just exchange one disease for another'” and that the best way of avoiding age-related diseases is to avoid biological ageing altogether. You can’t have the latter without the former, and it’s about time that people got over this. Therefore, pushing for ageing to be finally officially recognized for what it is—a collection of diseases amenable to medical intervention—will most definitely help to break through the wall of ignorance and prejudice that is thus far hindering the development of anti-ageing medicine. People don’t think that ageing is a disease because they’re used to think it’s just a stage of life, and will only start to finally accept that this is not the case only when a sufficiently large number of other people, scientists and organizations will come out and say it out loud.

That’s one sad truth: people get used to things way sooner than they understand them, and if, at some point, news from the anti-ageing world will populate often enough their TV screens, social media feeds, newspaper articles and even casual talks, they will be more keen on stopping ignoring the problem of ageing and opposing its resolution. Nobody likes to advocate for an unpopular cause: it doesn’t feel nice to be the only person in a group to support a certain claim and being fiercely opposed by all the others, but it does feel nice to be on the winning side of an argument. That’s why most people with whom you’ll discuss about rejuvenation will be against it right off the bat. They’ll feel there’s safety in numbers and tell themselves that if the cause isn’t that popular there must be a good reason; in order to resolve their own cognitive dissonance and to spare themselves the trouble of thinking, they’ll choose to dismiss the whole issue as something that isn’t worth any attention.

However, when the number of supporters of anti-ageing therapies will be large enough, hiding in the crowd of the opposers won’t be so easy anymore. The subset of people who, in a group discussing the matter, nods approvingly at the stereopyped and long-dismantled arguments against anti-ageing medicine won’t be big enough to easily put an end at the discussion by sheer whim of the majority, and at that point people will be forced to finally think about the problem before deciding which side they really stand on. As the number of supporters grows even larger, the roles will reverse: opposing anti-ageing will become the unpopular viewpoint, and this very reason alone will be enough for some people to abandon it—eventually one day they will understand the real reasons to abandon it, but for the time being we’ll be content enough with their non-opposing.

The second aspect is still something I’m debating about. With the exception of SENS Foundation and a few others, researchers of the field are quite hesitant about their goals. It clearly shows in the linked article, from which I quote the following paragraph:

Barzilai and his colleagues eschew claims of a quest for immortality, because they think that such assertions have led to a perception that the field is frivolous and irresponsible. “The perception is that we are all looking for a fountain of youth,” says Stephanie Lederman, executive director of the American Federation for Aging Research in New York. “We want to avoid that; what we’re trying to do is increase health span, not look for eternal life.”

Sure enough, this isn’t about immortality: immortality means zero risk of death from all possible causes, and curing ageing doesn’t make you immune to shotguns. Still, I don’t see anything wrong with looking for a “fountain of youth”. Actually, I don’t see how can you want to just “increase health span” without looking for a fountain of youth or eternal life. If they want to increase the current health span it’s clearly because they think that the current one isn’t enough. So they’re not okay with getting sick of the diseases of old age at 80. Now just how much do they want to increase this health span? Till you’re 100? 120? When is it okay to get age-related diseases? Unless you increase health-span indefinitely, at some point you are going to get age-related diseases, and they will kill you. And say that one day they manage to extend health span so that you don’t start experiencing age-related decay until you’re 120. Then some other researchers come along and say that “they just want to extend health span” so that ARDs are delayed until you’re 140. Are we saying no to that? Extending your health span up to when you’re 120 is fine but up to when you’re 140 is not? Why? You do understand that this game is rather silly, particularly when you think about the obvious fact that unless you have a health problem of some sort, you do not die: yes, being shot, poisoned, electrocuted, eaten by a shark and whatever violent death you can think of counts too, because they all cause you health issues that eventually (rather fast, in fact) kill you. So, if you’re not looking for eternal life, it means you’re explicitly and intentionally leaving around some health problem of which people can die. In the case of age-related diseases, which ones should we leave around? What ARDs are okay to die of? Alzheimer’s? Cancer? Cardiovascular disease? Make your pick—I’m okay without any of those, thank you.

I’m willing to concede that, perhaps, the researchers are playing it safe: they  know that, if you dare saying that you want to get rid of biological ageing altogether, people will jump down your throat and thus it’s better to slowly get them used to anti-ageing research before making bolder claims. However, I disagree: curing ageing is an urgent humanitarian problem, and there’s no time to fool around to please the masses. We need to educate people, get them understand that curing ageing and immortality aren’t the same thing at all, that age-related diseases are an extremely serious and compelling problem that needs to be addressed right now, before it gets from bad to worse, and that all the objections to the defeat of ageing make no sense whatsoever.