Over the weekend I had a novel experience: my first presentation about the biology of aging to an audience consisting entirely of non-scientists. The occasion was the 40th birthday of a dear friend, who invited each guest to give a five-minute talk about a topic of our choosing. (Other topics ranged from how to pick the perfect pair of jeans to the evils of California Chardonnay.)

Rather than drill down into technical details, I decided to use my five minutes to motivate the problem: Why should people care about biogerontology? I structured the talk around several questions and issues that often arise when I discuss aging with non-scientists; judging from the audience reaction and comments afterward, I felt satisfied that I got through to a lot of people. Sadly I wasn’t able to record the talk, but I wanted to recap some of the talking points that were well-received by the crowd.

  • Why would I want to live another ten years? This is the “living longer vs. dying longer” question. As my generation ages, we see our grandparents and parents slowly decline physically and mentally. Who wants another ten years in a hospital bed? The answer that got them nodding is simply this: We don’t want to add years to the end of life; we want to add them to the middle.
  • Aging is a natural process; who are we to interfere? There are a lot of potential responses to this one, but the most effective ones have to do with pointing out how many benefits we reap from behaving unnaturally. Before antibiotics, a bad cut could cause sepsis or death, all from naturally occurring bacteria. A hundred years ago, one in three women would die from childbirth-related complications. The state of nature is nasty, brutish and short; we’re mostly all descended from a long line of people who have chosen to take an unnatural course. Why is aging any different?
  • Isn’t our money better spent on specific age-related disease? My professional opinion is that this is a false dichotomy and that we should do both disease-specific research and basic studies of the biology of aging; this is a hugely rich civilization and to the extent that we behave in a civilized manner (which we don’t: the US misadventure in Iraq spends the annual NIH budget every month), there’s very little reason to make either/or choices of this sort. It turns out, however, to be easier to make the argument for increasing resources devoted to aging research, as follows:

    Surprisingly, comprehensive cures for all heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer are predicted to have rather modest effects on average lifespan (e.g., see Olshansky et al.). Such cures, in any event, are still far away even after years of study. Aging is the primary risk factor for these (and many other) diseases; as a relatively new science, biogerontology holds greater promise for near-term radical improvements in healthspan. The Olshansky projections really blew them away, especially when coupled with a few words about the longevity increases we’ve achieved with single-gene changes and dietary restriction in model organisms. Then I showed a pie chart comparing the NIH funds spent on diseases to those spent on basic aging research. Gasps.

  • If this is possible, won’t the market take care of it? The subtext here is that the NIH allocations are a red herring; the deeper subtext is that government can’t solve problems. This is a hard question to answer in the context of ideology: folks who ask it are often quite powerful believers in the omnipotence of the Invisible Hand, and it tends to be fruitless to debate the role of states vs. markets in general.

    Over the years I’ve learned that it’s more effective to steer away from political theory and address the specific situation: Basic research funded at the federal and state level constitutes a gargantuan “risk subsidy” for the pharmaceutical and biomedical industries. We work cheap. We explore blind alleys and reveal the rare tunnels with a light at the end, and then we publish our results for the world to see. We assume risks, gambling chunks of our limited time on this planet against the calculated hope of major discovery. Private entities skim the cream of the crop and then embark on commercial development — at that point, shouldering their share of the risk. It’s hard to imagine either publicly funded research or private development alone making rapid progress in truly novel directions. Each needs the other; this is how this works.

Overall, the audience was energized and excited by the talk; I felt like I’d informed and educated them. I hope the points above will be useful to Ouroboros readers as we spread the word about biogerontology, not only within science but within the world at large.

If you have a favorite talking point or good answer to a common question on this subject, feel free to share it in the Comments.

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