International anti-aging crusader Aubrey de Grey, who hopes to “cure aging” within our lifetime, spoke in Baltimore this week and even took time to share a few beers with the locals, including yours truly.
I’d like to think of ChangingAging.org as the preeminent pro-aging blog so it was a great opportunity to talk to the world’s leading anti-aging advocate. And surprisingly I came away with the impression that although our rhetoric is wildly divergent – as divergent as anti- vs pro-aging rhetoric can be — we share similar goals.
First, where we diverge — as our masthead says, we look at human aging “as a strength, rich in developmental potential and growth.” De Grey argues aging is “obviously, unequivocally humanity’s worst problem.”
That’s a big difference. But lets look at our goals.
The ultimate goal of ChangingAging.org is to improve the lives of elders. We’re fighting to rid the world of ageism, abolish the practice of institutionalizing frail older adults and to support creation of environments for a life worth living no matter your age, ability or condition.
Although de Grey is famous for claiming the first human to live to 1,000 is alive today, he says his real work is also focused on improving the lives of older adults. The goal is to create as-yet-unknown therapies that will prevent or cure the diseases and degeneration associated with aging. Extending the human lifespan (perhaps indefinitely, de Grey claims) may be a byproduct of these therapies, but the motive is to reduce suffering and illness.
And who would say no to ending Alzheimer’s disease? Or curing Cancer? Or staying young for… ever?
Well, that’s a big question. Let’s get back to our rhetoric on aging.
De Grey opened his speech in Baltimore by calling human aging “obviously, unequivocally humanity’s worst problem,” and urging us to demand our government “declare an all out war to defeat aging.” He claimed that out of the 150,000 people who die on Earth every day, two-thirds of them die from — you guessed it — aging. Not only is death from aging unpleasant and undesirable, he argues, it’s an expensive burden on society costing more in the final year of life than the rest of the cumulative health care combined. In short, de Grey says,”We better do something about this right away.”
Calling aging humanity’s worst problem assumes there is potentially a solution to that problem. I’m not an expert on regenerative therapy so I’ll give you de Grey’s unvarnished, most optimistic outlook on that solution.
First, de Grey admits that what we currently understand about the mechanics of aging (metabolism at the cellular level) is “astronomically dwarfed” by what we don’t know. In other words, we are eons away from understanding the aging process, let alone doing anything about it.
Instead, de Grey promotes research that takes a different tack. He claims to have identified seven major categories of cellular damage that are caused by aging (or you might say by being alive). If we can simply create therapies to repair or block this damage from occurring we can dramatically increase the human lifespan.
At his most optimistic, de Grey postulates that we have a fifty-fifty shot in the next thirty years of developing therapies that “maybe” will add thirty years to the average human lifespan. If — and that’s a BIG if — we make that first breakthrough, then theoretically the science will advance at a fast enough rate that we will continue to add years to the human lifespan indefinitely.
In other words, de Grey cheerfully admits that his theories on extending the human lifespan are exactly that — theories. Unproven, hypothetical and — in my humble opinion — wildly optimistic.
Does that mean we shouldn’t support research into regenerative therapies, as de Grey calls them? Absolutely not.
But lets be realistic. Aging is part of living. Even in the event of de Grey’s wildest theories coming true, individuals and humanity at large will continue to age, continue to grapple with the realities of aging — both pleasant and unpleasant — and billions of people will inevitably experience death.
Demagoguing aging, decrying the plight of older adults as horrific and feeding off people’s basest fears of mortality may help de Grey raise money. But there are also consequences to that kind of rhetoric.
Ageism in our society feeds off a fear and disgust of aging and a lack of knowledge of what’s like to grow old. Even de Grey admitted over a friendly beer he was ignorant of the fact that older people are on average happier than younger people. Something to consider if you plan on postponing senescence for a few centuries.
Older people are already are marginalized and disappeared from society when they can no longer care for themselves. More than 1.6 million people are removed from their homes and communities and institutionalized in nursing homes for the simple crime of frailty. In these cold, clinical environments they do not die of “aging”, as de Grey puts it, but of loneliness, helplessness and boredom.
Our obsession with youth and beauty marginalizes older people, especially women, with devastating effect. Their very livelihood can be jeopardized by greying hair or wrinkles — trivial and harmless side effects of aging.
The fear of death also negatively impacts the young. I met sixteen-year-old Matthew (I’ll withhold his last name at his mother’s request) at the de Grey event, who used his college trust fund to purchase a membership with the Alcor Life Extension Foundation that will ensure, upon his death, that his head is removed and cryogenically frozen and preserved in perpetuity. That’s not all — he also purchased policies to have his two dogs — Shih Tzu’s named Cupcake and Muffin — cryogenically frozen with him at a cost of $6,000 each. Matthew told me he would rather be homeless and forego college than face losing his dogs. He even has anti-coagulants in his fridge to inject into the dogs upon their death to slow decomposition before they’re frozen.
Now, what Matthew does with his money and his dogs is not anyone else’s business (except perhaps his parents) but even his mother agreed that his obsession and fear of death may not be healthy.
What I found interesting from my conversation with de Grey was how genuinely shocked and concerned he was that some people (he said mostly sociologists) found his anti-aging rhetoric offensive to older people or dishonoring to the concept of elderhood.
I don’t believe de Grey intended to offend older people in any way. But I do hope that when — or should I say if — de Grey gets the opportunity to grow “old” himself, I hope he gains a deeper appreciation and understanding of the value and richness of aging and elderhood, not just the physical downsides.
Here’s video of de Grey’s full presentation. Let us know what you think.