Anti-aging medical research must be our top priority

Embargoed to 0001 Thursday September 15 File photo dated 05/12/08 of the hands of an elderly woman as elderly people are bearing the brunt of cuts to social care, according to a new report, which also warned that increasing numbers of care homes would go bust.

What is medicine for? Surely an easy question, right? Apparently not. I have always believed that the purpose of medicine is to alleviate the suffering caused by ill-health and death. One must include both, because death itself is very effective in ending the suffering caused by ill-health, and even though there is vibrant debate concerning the appropriate access to assisted suicide, society overwhelmingly adopts the policy that life is sacred and must be extended at virtually all cost.

Or does it? There is a bizarre contradiction in our collective approach to the ill-health of old age. On the one hand we are happy to allocate billions upon billions to the quixotic pursuit of extended but functionally impaired life, under the banner of geriatric medicine, but on the other hand we overwhelmingly express deep ambivalence, if not outright opposition, to the idea of future medicine that would actually work – that would entirely abolish those ailments and maintain youthful mental and physical function to much greater chronological ages. When asked to consider such a world, most people are far more inclined to raise concerns about how society would manage the likely side-effect of increased average longevity, than to pay any attention whatever to the prospective alleviation of so much suffering.

I have discussed in many other places the psychological underpinning of this phenomenon, so I will not repeat myself here. Instead I will focus on the economic imperative to hasten the arrival of truly effective anti-aging medicine, and the consequent duty of governments to allocate greatly increased resources to the effort to develop them.

The ill-health of old age currently accounts not only for over 70% of deaths worldwide but also for a similar proportion of medical expenditure. In the industrialised world, these numbers are in the region of 90%. What if we had medicine that would prevent the conditions on which all that money is spent? The money would be saved! Sure, the medicines that achieved this prevention would themselves cost money, but there is no reason (not even any hypothetical reason) why prevention should not be better (i.e. cheaper) than cure in this case as it usually is. And that’s just the start. Do you, or does anyone you know, have a parent with advanced Alzheimer’s or any other age-related chronic disease? How much productivity is lost from the burden of caregiving as a result? It’s astronomical. And beyond that, consider the wealth that the elderly could contribute to society if only they remained able-bodied. The economic benefit would be unimaginable.

How is this not completely obvious to everyone? My only explanation is that the powers that be are just as irrational about aging as the rest of society. There can be no doubt that policy-makers are acutely aware of the economic realities that I summarise above, but their decisions are based on their perceptions of the impact on their priorities. And it seems that policy-makers remain convinced that it is not in their interests to inject relatively minuscule sums into research that could pay for itself literally millions of times over. Why? Only two explanations seem available. One is that the reward is further in the future than the current electoral cycle, such that whatever the logic of such a course, it would be against the nearer-term vested interests of the political elite. The other is that these decision-makers truly feel, in spite of all the scientific evidence trumpeted by biogerontologists every day, that the probability of actual success (i.e., of a substantial hastening of the defeat of ageing) from such expenditure really is less than one in a million, thus outweighing the benefit that success would bring. Neither such attitude is remotely excusable.

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  • Dr Johnty

    This is 100% correct progress in anti aging medicine must be our priority because the cost of caring for elderly people with multiple chronic conditions is a burden on the industrialized worlds health services that is simply not sustainable in the long term. Undoubtably the early treatments to repair the damage caused by aging – as with any other newly developed cutting edge therapies – will be high but the price will drop very rapidly and the more people that are receiving the therapies the more money will be generated / saved. The benefits of these therapies will exceed the expectations of the majority of people because they simply can’t see how it will all pan out but the fact is many old people are frequently extremely unwell with multiple chronic conditions and cannot contribute to society in many of the ways that they would like – nor can they work.

    As far as organizations such as Medicare in the US and the NHS in the UK are concerned the treatments to control aging are likely to be much cheaper than the horrific costs currently incurred in treating heart disease, cancer, diabetes, strokes, Alzheimer’s and other incapacitating degenerative illnesses which impair a person’s quality of life. These conditions also create unsustainable burdens on social services. These chronic conditions are something which become a problem in later life and do not usually affect young people. Keep in mind that most people cost the health services more in their final year of life than in all of the rest of their life combined hence there is no possible reason not to develop these interventions at the earliest opportunity.

  • cantloginas_Momo

    Is this a satire targeting the inhumanity of our neoliberal age? It is horrifying reading. Humans are seen as one thing only: contributors to wealth creation. If they fail to serve “the economy”, apparently an entity of its own, they become a “burden”. Seriously? Why is the weakness coming with age (or disability or sickness, which the author does not mention) bad? The author gives one single answer: it causes costs. This implies that human beings are subjects of “the economy”, and have duties to “the economy”, but no rights.

    • Mushroom overlord

      Aubrey is just tackling the issue from an economic perspective. He does state at the outset

      “I have always believed that the purpose of medicine is to alleviate the suffering caused by ill-health and death.”

      • cantloginas_Momo

        Quite, and I am saying that this perspective is doing nothing to “alleviate the suffering caused by ill-health and death”. A demonisation of “being a burden” is automatically inhumane. It matches an image of humanity that demands that humans be unsolidaric, uncaring, ultimately anti-social. It matches narratives of declaring people who depend on care as suffering from a lack autonomy which suffering has to be cured by assisted suicide saving the costs of a life that other people consider not worth living. It’s the logic of putting a price tag on human life.

        I don’t doubt Aubrey’s motives, but his argumentation is dangerously close to an argumention of eugenics.

        • Mushroom overlord

          To be perfectly honest with you I think you’re unnecessarily whining and complaining when the issue at hand is clear and one that requires substantial financial support to the projects that aim to eliminate age related disease and the suffering it causes.

          • cantloginas_Momo

            With concerns about the ethics of this project being dismissed as “unnecessarily whining“, I think I can rest my case. The argumentation
            you defend here, and which was at the beginning of the Holocaust, is again at the root of increasing suffering and deaths. I can only conclude that all the project is as unethical as the arguments raised in favour of it. It will definitely be a good thing for humanity, if this project with its doubtful ethics receives no funding.

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