“Each Cyclops had a single eye because, legend has it, the mythical giants traded the other one with the god Hades in return for the ability to see into the future. But Hades tricked them: the only vision the Cyclopes were shown was the day they would die. They carried this knowledge through their lives as a burden—the unending torture of being forewarned and yet having no ability to do anything about it.”
Since ancient times, continues David Adam in MIT Technology Review, “aging has been viewed as simply inevitable, unstoppable, nature’s way. “Natural causes” have long been blamed for deaths among the old, even if they died of a recognized pathological condition. The medical writer Galen argued back in the second century AD that aging is a natural process.”
In Galen’s view, humans don’t have much more control over our destiny than a Cyclops. Today, a growing number of scientists are questioning this basic conception of aging. “What if you could challenge your death—or even prevent it altogether,” scientists are asking. “What if the diseases that strike us in old age are symptoms,” writes Adam, “not causes? What would change if we classified aging itself as the disease?”
“Many of the most serious diseases today are a function of aging,” says David Sinclair, a geneticist and co-Director of the Paul F. Glenn Center for the Biology of Aging at Harvard Medical School, is one of those on the front line of those who argue that we should view aging not as a natural consequence of growing older, but as a condition in and of itself, a pathology—and, like all pathologies, can be successfully treated.
“Thus, identifying the molecular mechanisms and treatments of aging should be an urgent priority,” Sinclair says. “Unless we address aging at its root cause, we’re not going to continue our linear, upward progress toward longer and longer life spans.”
“Work to develop medicines that could potentially prevent and treat most major diseases is going far slower than it should be because we don’t recognize aging as a medical problem,” Sinclair observes of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) failure to include aging as a conditions a drug can be licensed to act on, and so what conditions it can be prescribed and sold for. “If aging were a treatable condition, then the money would flow into research, innovation, and drug development. Right now, what pharmaceutical or biotech company could go after aging as a condition if it doesn’t exist?” It should, he says, be the “biggest market of all.”
That’s precisely what worries some people, reports Adam, who think a gold rush into “anti-aging” drugs will set the wrong priorities for society.
A common objection to the “aging-as-a-disease hypothesis” is that labeling old people as diseased will add to the stigma they already face says Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. “Ageism is the biggest ism we have today in the world. The aging community is attacked. People are fired from work because they are old. Old people cannot get jobs. To go to those people with so many problems and now tell them, ‘You’re sick, you have a disease’? This is a no-win situation for the people we are trying to help.”
“Aging is a Disease”
“I am clearly in favor of calling aging a disease,” counters Sven Bulterijs, cofounder of the Healthy Life Extension Society, a nonprofit organization in Brussels that considers aging a “universal human tragedy” with a root cause that can be found and tackled to make people live longer. “We don’t say for cancer patients that it’s insulting to call it a disease.”
Earlier efforts to view aging as a curable disease were pioneered by British gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, author of Ending Aging. “For decades,” says de Grey, “my colleagues and I had been earnestly investigating aging in the same way that historians might “investigate” World War I: as an almost hopelessly complex historical tragedy about which everyone could theorize and argue, but about which nothing could fundamentally be done.”
Aging says de Grey, he 54-year-old cofounder of the SENS Research Foundation, “unequivocally causes far more suffering than anything else that we have to experience,” de Grey said, “and contrary to the impression that most of humanity has forced itself into, it’s indeed a problem which is amenable through technological intervention.”
De Grey believes that, within the next 20 years or so, scientists will finally solve one of humanity’s greatest problems, and, that the first human who will live to 1000 years old is alive and breathing on Earth today.
“The fact is, aging kills 110,000 people worldwide every fucking day,” de Grey said. “It doesn’t just kill them. You have to take into account all the suffering that comes before.”
The Daily Galaxy, Andy Johnson, via MIT Technology Review
Image credit at top of page: “Amphitrite, Siren of Sunset Reef” – sculpture created Canadian artist Simon Morris, at Grand Cayman Island