Talking points

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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7 comments

  1. Elena: It’s not a specific single gene. There are several biochemical pathways, conserved throughout evolution, where mutations can increase lifespan. The IGF-1 signaling pathway is one great example, and there are several articles on this site that will tell you more. The diet is calorie restriction.

    Michael: For the lifespan projections, see the Olshansky paper. The take-home message is that cures for major diseases only add four or five years to average lifespan, and they’re not cumulative — so curing all CVD gives you 4 years, all cancer 5, and all age-related disease togther less than 9. This isn’t chicken feed but it’s still painfully incremental, especially given that we’re nowhere near curing all of these diseases anyway.

    The pie chart isn’t really worth posting because I can describe it: The NIH budget is ~$30 billion, of which <$1 billion is devoted to the NIA. Only about 10% of that, very permissively defined, is allocated to basic research on the mechanisms of aging.

  2. Thanks, Chris. Interesting site, and post. I’ve “scrolled down” this far, but perhaps you can direct me to a post that answers the question “why?” in an ecological or evolutionary sense. The virtual demise of public discussion or consideration of the pressing issue of population growth seems to me to be a relevant issue here. How, ecologically or evolutionarily, does our interest in living longer make sense, especially given the resources we spend today to keep post-reproductive entities (of which I are one) alive?

  3. Good questions, Sally.

    We do a lot of things to keep individual people alive, and our motives for doing so have nothing to do with the reproductive prospects of those people (nor, therefore, with evolutionary considerations — which, based on the errors of past regimes, I generally feel should be kept well away from policy decisions in any case). We inoculate children and feed them nutritious diets and wear seatbelts and take antibiotics and treat cancer because we care more about the dignity and value of individual lives than about the potentially Malthusian consequences of the resulting effects on population. Longevity research is a simple corollary of the things we’re already doing to keep individuals alive: it’s something we do because we believe individuals are worthwhile.

    Regarding the environment: Here are three reasons why I don’t think there’s a tradeoff between sustainability and enhanced longevity:

    First, our relationship with the Earth is an important consideration in any human endeavor, but ecological concerns are primarily about how we live and only secondarily about how long. I think it’s likely that people who expect to be around longer will be better stewards of their own planet.

    Second, longevity research isn’t about extending the most resource-intensive parts of life, but rather the productive ones. No one wants to give people ten more years in a hospital bed, absorbing vast quantities of resources and enjoying a limited quality of life while contributing nothing to society. We want people to live longer, not die longer.

    Third, in the process of keeping people alive longer, we’ll reap the benefits of all of the creative energy and productivity we lose as a result of aging and age-related disease.

    These are only partial answers, but I hope they’re helpful. I don’t tend to blog about the philosophy of longevity research as often as I end up talking about it with my friends. There are others in the blogosphere who do write a good deal about the moral justification of lifespan extension — I’m thinking especially of Reason over at Longevity Meme and the allied sites, as well as the increasingly ubiquitous Aubrey de Grey. They’re both articulate on the question of why it’s a good, justifiable and moral act to work toward longer lifespans for everyone. We don’t necessarily see eye to eye on all questions of political or economic philosophy, but we are in broad agreement on the importance and ethics of extending lifespan; they also ground their fundamental arguments in the value and dignity of individual lives. If you’re interested in these questions, I’d recommend that you devote some attention to what they have to say.

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