As we trailblaze a new way to age our access to health information and medicine is lengthening our liives. It's improving our quality of life in later years. Wrinkles and illnesses, however, are still part of the journey. Not surprisingly, then, advancing medicine fuels a renewed search for the fountain of youth. Revenues for the anti aging industry (research, products, services) are are pushing toward $200 billion annually by 2021. For perspective, our collective spending to defend against wrinkles and aging is greater than what we spend annually defending the U.S. through funding for the FBI and CIA! Maybe you think this suggests that our priorities are questionable or maybe you've spent money to look younger and realize it's value. Either way, ethics controversies surround the use and production of some of the most popular products used to forestall aging and even greater ethical challenges are on our horizon as gerontology and bio science approach the capacity to engineer radically extended lives.
While Plastic surgery revenues totaled an astonishing $16.5 in U.S. sales Botox alone spilled over $3B. Over 7 million Botox injections were recorded in 2016 but no one knows how many were received in unregulated "botox clinics" or even at home where they would've been self injected using botox acquired online. Botox is a brand name for BTX-A, botulinum toxin, a protein and neurotoxin known to be the most toxic substance on earth. Though many patients experience more positive than negative results from injections the inherent toxicity of Botox causes occasional splashy headlines, disturbing side effects, and investigations of underground "clinics" using unapproved serum or poorly administered shots. Widespread usage makes Botox seem safer than it actually is. HGH (Human Growth Hormone) is another of today's touted anti aging products that attracts ethics controversies and writes big headlines. Most recently you may have heard about it in the context of sports scandals. Taking HGH supplements can stimulate growth of muscle mass and bone as well as cells and organs though its effectiveness in fighting age is unsubstantiated. Each of these products are used because of a desire to have youthful energy, quick healing or young looks but both assume that aging will continue to affect our bodies. That's where new research on radical life extension hopes to change things.
Radical Life extension turns the concept of aging upside down. Advocated by biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey, radical life extension and rejuvenation therapy, are based on the concept that aging isn't natural. de Grey contends that we have the capability to extend our lives to 120 or 150 years and, more importantly, that we don't need to expect to put up with age related illnesses and infirmities. His foundation, SENS Research, and The Methuselah Foundation, co-founded with tech innovator and venture capitalist David Gobel, are aggressively funneling money into new research. SENS boldly states that "For each major class of aging damage, a strategy for its removal or repair either already exists in prototype form, or is foreseeable from existing scientific developments." Methusalah's tagline boasts: "Making 90 the new 50 by 2030." 2030, readers.
Man isn't alone in getting wrinkled, ill, and lame in advanced age but aging doesn't affect all living creatures. Lobsters, for instance, don't age and hydras are apparently immortal. de Grey and his proponents are urging medical science to turn their research focus toward stopping the aging process rather than slowing the illnesses and breakdowns that it causes. People have been looking for the Fountain of Youth since before Christ however, in the 21st century, we see immortal models in nature and tantalizing glimpses of the fountain's renewing waters through miraculous medical advances. Consequently de Grey's intentions and their plausibility have concerned scientists and ethicists already talking about the social consequences of radically longer youthful lives.
The President's Council on Bioethics was one of the first to raise concern about radical life extension in their 2003 report, "Ageless Bodies." In this thoughtful analysis they consider the impacts that engineered longer life spans would have on generations, society, and our historical view of life. Peter Singer, a Princeton bioethicist, warns: Will we all have the opportunity for long youthful lives or would there be such cost involved in life extension that it will further create inequality in our societies? If more and more people are growing older and are youthful then what pressure will that put on over population? How will life extension affect our relationship with God wonders theologian Gilbert Meilaender. The "qualitatively different life for which Christian believers have hoped" couldn't come from an extension of this life, he writes, "because it [this life] cannot finally bring us the completion needed for us to truly flourish." Slate.com asks how we'll test medications and methods for staying young. Who will be the human test subjects and what ethical dilemmas will that introduce?
Life extension advocate, philosopher and ethicist Bennett Foddy told the Atlantic Monthly that the possibility of living to 120 shouldn't seem that surprising or strange. Life extension is already happening. Around the world people are living longer lives. Here in America our life spans nearly doubled in a century. He supports de Grey's ideas because they simultaneously extend life and extend youthfulness. He reasons that our current practice of treating the illnesses caused by aging puts a maximum drain on resources as family and society try to supply care. As such, it's not a social good. However, if we all had youthful lives to the age of 150 it would relieve pressures on family and society and allow us to give back to society and/or stay engaged as we age. Today we think that aging is natural but Foddy believes that's a mistake in reasoning. It's a rationalization we've developed, he says, because we feel like we can't do anything to stop aging. In fact, we can.
We can but do we want to? That's what Pew Research asked in their survey about Radical Life Extension perceptions. You're in the majority if you're comfortable with the life span we have today. Despite all the money we spend trying live longer and stay young just 38% were interested in living to 120 even if aging could be slowed. Longer youthful lives would impact the full spectrum of our experience including: employment, family, retirement, insurance, sexuality, financial planning, spirituality, life planning and maturity. I liked what my 85 year old friend told me when I asked her if she'd live to 120 if we could slow aging. "No way," she snapped, "where on earth would I find the money to pay for forty five more years!"
Ready or not the new way to age may be to not age at all. Radical life extension generates ethics controversies and fundamental concerns that may trump anything we've faced before. As we move closer to that reality will it gain in popularity? Will consumers trade their botox injections for de Grey's potentially more involved and costly rejuvenation treatments to look and act younger than their age? Can society buck historical assumptions and begin to look at age as a disease not a natural progression? Will we really find the Fountain of Youth? Is it a myth? Is it somewhere in a research lab? Is it in our hearts and minds?
"There is a fountain of youth: it is your mind, your talents, the creativity you bring to your life and the lives of people you love. When you learn to tap this source you will truly have defeated age." Sophia Loren.
Update: Sept 18 2013. New pilot study finds that lifestyle changes can extend lifespan by lengthening telomeres that protect our chromosomes and prevent aging.
Google launches plans to explore radical life extension.
Update September 2014. Great article on extending our lifespan with outstanding photos from The Atlantic. Excerpt rom the article: Most Americans have never heard of the Buck Institute, but someday this place may be very well known. Buck is not alone in its pursuit. The University of Michigan, the University of Texas, and the University of California at San Francisco are studying ways to slow aging, as is the Mayo Clinic. Late in 2013, Google brought its trove of cash into the game, founding a spin-off called the California Life Company (known as Calico) to specialize in longevity research. Six months after Calico’s charter was announced, Craig Venter, the biotech entrepreneur who in the 1990s conducted a dramatic race against government laboratories to sequence the human genome, also founded a start-up that seeks ways to slow aging.
Update March 2015: A new drug combination called senolytics may be the key to killing senescent cells (cells in our bodies that stop dividing and secrete proteins that kill surrounding cells thereby advancing aging). The ability to kill these cells would reduce aging frailty and increase cardiovascular performance and endurance.
Update March 2015: Here he is...the pioneer of radical life extension. In this TED talk he lays out exactly why he believe we can slow or stop aging and why we need to pursue that goal rather than focus on possible social implications.
Update April 2015: Did science find the immortality gene? Will we have the opportunity to live forever in just two years?
Update May 2016: Research is moving so fast that radical life extension and it's impact on countries was a topic at the Davos World Economic Forum this year.
Update 2017: Is the public the last to get on the anti aging bandwagon? The Life Extension Advocacy Foundation explains why.
Update 2018: The Atlantic magazine looks at the Anti-aging science.