The Silent Crisis of Aging

(Photo: Elderly Woman via Shutterstock)(Photo: Elderly Woman via Shutterstock)

Our society is plagued by a crisis of aging that is weakening, infecting and killing hundreds of millions of us every year. We rarely think of it this way – aging is seen as a natural part of life rather than a crisis – but many serious researchers and philosophers argue that our typical views on the naturalness and acceptability of death are mistaken.

Philosopher Nick Bostrom wrote a fable, initially published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, as an analogy to our acceptance of aging as natural. In the story, a dragon-tyrant rules over humanity, demanding 10,000 victims to be consumed daily. But the dragon has been around as long as anyone can remember, and the taking of victims is a well-established and accepted facet of life. While they find the losses of the victims tragic and the victims’ families mourn, it is simply understood that this is just the way things are and the way they have always been.

Should they, if they had the opportunity, rid themselves of the dragon, thus saving countless lives? Of course, it seems obvious to us that they should. Suppose there’s no obvious way to defeat the dragon – shouldn’t they spend significant resources investigating and developing plans to defeat the dragon? Again, the answers seems obviously to be yes.

But this story, Bostrom argues, is exactly the situation we are in with regards to death. We have no obvious solution to the problem of aging, but it takes it’s toll on each of us, and is responsible for untold deaths every moment. It may be in our nature, a fundamental part of who we are and our societies, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept it, just as we shouldn’t have to accept a dragon-tyrant.

Co-creator of PayPal, Peter Thiel, is investing significant resources into research on the causes of and potential treatments of aging. Why does he think this is so important? In his own words:

“I’ve always had this really strong sense that death was a terrible, terrible thing. I think that’s somewhat unusual. Most people end up compartmentalizing, and they are in some weird mode of denial and acceptance about death, but they both have the result of making you very passive.

I prefer to fight it.”

There is some support for the view that Thiel’s sense is unusual, as polling data suggest that few people say their ideal age is over 100-years-old. Many of these people may well have a sense that this is just the “proper” lifespan for a human being, despite life expectancy having vastly improved in the last few centuries. Others may think that, even beyond a sense of “naturalness,” they will have lived what they think is a satisfying and fulfilling life by around age 100.

But I suspect that most people don’t want to live past 100 because of the degradation of mind and body that may make life no longer worth living. I recently defended the idea that patients should have the right to determine when their own lives are no longer worth living, and choose suicide when it is a way to escape great suffering.

But if we extend our lives by fighting the effects of aging, then any extended life should come with a similar quality of experience as the healthier years of contemporary human lives. Imagine a 100-year-old playing a game of tennis, a 120-year-old climbing Mt. Fuji, a bi-centenarian competing in the Olympics.

This will surely seem somewhat fanciful and perhaps it is. But surely 100 years ago any number of ideas and inventions were unthinkable and fanciful that are now a part of our daily lives. Is it so hard to think we might develop significantly powerful anti-aging and life-extending technology over a long time-scale? And if it’s possible, why not start now?

Some argue that there are more important causes to focus on. But aging is one of the few conditions that effects nearly everyone, which gives us egalitarian reasons to prefer fighting it. And while it’s undoubtedly true that any successful treatments would be provided first to the wealthy and the powerful, this is also true of many other globe-changing technologies, like cell phones, that eventually become ubiquitous even among the global poor. Good future policy choices could ensure that anti-aging technologies provide benefits as diffusely as possible.

And since many of the diseases that are both the biggest killers or demand lots of funding, such as cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s, are all, at least in part, symptoms of aging, a greater focus on anti-aging research might still provide treatments and cures for these diseases and more. With some luck, it might get us closer to preventing these diseases from ever occurring.