Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Sage Crossroads Podcast on Longevity Science

My Podcast interview on why longevity science should be a priority is available at the Sage Crossroads website here. Here is a sample from the interview:

Sage Crossroads: You argue that aging is the most important neglected problem of our time. Why do you feel this way?

Farrelly: Humanity faces many challenges this century…. And it's often difficult to distinguish between the biggest problems and those that are less pressing. I think three important considerations can help us make this distinction.

(1) Magnitude of the harms in question
(2) their certainty
(3) and the likelihood that we could do something to mitigate those harms

I think aging scores very high on all 3 of these issues.

The sheer number of humans that will suffer the diseases of aging this century is staggering and unprecedented. So aging scores very high on the magnitude of harm criterion.

Secondly, aging scores very high on the certainty factor: the scientific consensus is in— we know that senescence causes disease and death.

And thirdly, we must ask- what is the likelihood that we could actually do something to remedy the situation. The greater the likelihood that we could successfully mitigate the harms in question the stronger the case for taking action.

We now know that aging is not immutable… and thus longevity science could provide us with effective and efficient strategies for dealing with the many problems that aging populations face.


Sage Crossroads: How are we going to convince the public that this is worthy of pursuit and that aging is a disease?

This is a very important question. Rather than label aging as a disease, I think it might prove more useful to strive to go beyond the “disease model” of medicine.

We have already seen this happen in other disciplines like psychology. The rise over the last decade of what is called “positive psychology” has legitimized the study of what makes people happy rather than just what causes mental illness.

You could draw an interesting parallel with longevity science. Medicine should not just be concerned with why people develop disease, but we should also be interested in the question of why some people can live to a 100 years old without developing disease. And so centenarians provide us with an excellent focal point for shifting the current medical paradigm.

And if we can convince the public that they and their children will not have to suffer the same diseases that ravaged their own parents and grandparents, then perhaps we can get the public seriously behind this science.


Monday, August 18, 2008

Public Health Ethics Paper on Aging Research

My paper entitled "Aging Research, Priorities and Aggregation" has been accepted for publication in the journal Public Health Ethics. Here is a sample from the paper:

Humans are intrinsically vulnerable to disease, disability and death. There are many distinct things that can jeopardize a person’s health prospects. From birth defects and poverty, to cancer and serious accidents, a diverse array of genetic and environmental hazards can increase the risk of morbidity and mortality. Because so many diverse factors influence the health prospects of both individuals and populations, it is often difficult to grasp the “big picture” in terms of the priorities and potential strategies we should pursue to expand the opportunities for healthy life.

One important, yet often neglected, risk factor is age. The older an adult gets, the greater their risk of morbidity and mortality...So the current situation is one where we invest very little in understanding the biological processes that cause the most prevalent diseases and yet we spend an exorbitant amount of money trying to treat each of the diverse afflictions that come with aging (e.g. cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, etc.). To help redress this imbalance, the advocates of “The Longevity Dividend Campaign” (Olshansky et al 2006) have called on Congress to invest $3 billion dollars annually into understanding the biology of aging. That would amount to approximately 1% of the current Medicare budget.

What explains the current neglect of aging research? The answer to this important question is no doubt multifaceted and complex. In “Extending Life: Scientific Prospects and Political Obstacles” Richard Miller posits nine reasons for the current neglect of aging research. These range from scientific obstacles- like the time it takes to complete aging experiments in mammals- to political obstacles like the scarcity of lobbyists for basic aging research (compared to the lobbies for specific diseases like cancer or Alzheimer’s). One major obstacle that Miller specifically draws attention to as an impediment to manipulating longevity is what he calls “gerontologiphobia”. He describes this as follows:

There is an irrational public predisposition to regard research on specific late-life diseases as marvelous but to regard research on aging, and thus all late-life diseases together, as a public menace bound to produce a world filled with nonproductive, chronically disabled, unhappy senior citizens consuming more resources than they produce. No one who speaks in public about longevity research goes very far before encountering the widespread belief that research on extending the life span is unethical, because it will create a world with too many old people and not enough room for young folks. (Miller 2002, p. 170)

Given that many people see longevity science itself as unethical, it is not surprising that proposals to invest greater funding into tackling aging, rather than research on specific diseases, will likely be met with strong opposition and protests that this is unfair. For the latter proposal implicates the allocation of scarce resources, and thus it raises complex questions of distributive justice. Is it fair, the critic will ask, to divert resources dedicated to saving lives (e.g. with possible treatments for cancer, AD, etc.) to medical research that seeks to merely extend lives? Let us call this the Fairness Objection to prioritizing aging research.

In this paper I will examine, and critique, this Fairness Objection to making aging research a greater priority than it currently is. The Fairness Objection presumes that support for the Longevity Dividend is limited to a simplistic utilitarian justification. Utilitarians invoke a mode of justification that is, at base, aggregative. Thus the critics of utilitarianism charge that it is a moral theory that maintains that imposing high costs on a few could be justified by the fact that this confers benefits on others, no matter how small these benefits may be as long as the recipients are sufficiently numerous.

At first blush it might appear that the advocates of the Longevity Dividend Campaign are making precisely this kind of utilitarian argument to help buttress support for aging research. Given that aging has a statistical frequency of 100%, one might regard the aspiration to retard human aging as a goal that would create small benefits for a very large number of people, and these benefits would come at the cost of potentially saving the lives of those who would need treatments for specific diseases (like cancer, AD, diabetes, etc.).

I develop two arguments to refute the Fairness Objection. Firstly, the Fairness Objection mischaracterizes the utilitarian argument for retarding human aging. It does so by invoking the fallacious conceptual distinction between “saving lives” and “extending lives”, as well as making a number of mistaken assumptions concerning the likely benefits of retarding human aging. Secondly, I argue that the Longevity Dividend Campaign can also be supported on contractualist, in addition to utilitarian, grounds. Because the harms of senescence are what Thomas Scanlon (1998) calls “morally relevant” to the harms of disease (i.e. they cause death, disability, suffering, etc.), contractualists can permit aggregation within lives. And thus no one could reasonably reject, I contend, a principle that makes the aspiration to tackle human aging more of a priority than it currently is.


Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Main Menu (August 2008)

Friday, August 08, 2008

Petroleum, Patriarchy and Marx (Part 2)

Need another reason to help break our dependency on oil? How about- because petroleum perpetuates patriarchy.

In this post I continue, in more detail, the thoughts I first expressed here.

When we look at the world around us we see different patterns of patriarchy. Women in certain countries enjoy much greater access to things like employment, education and civil and political rights than women in other parts of the world. For example, women in Canada and the United States fare much better along these dimensions than women do in say, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Why is this?

Why does the world have the pattern of patriarchy it currently possesses? And why do patriarchal practices and institutions evolve and modify the way they have tended to over time in human societies? No doubt the answers to these important empirical questions will be complex and multifaceted. Insights from evolutionary biology, history, sociology and economics, for example, highlight different cultural features (like the family, religion, etc.) of human societies and the role they play in perpetuating oppression.

I believe that Marx, and more specifically Analytical Marxism, can help us diagnosis the patterns of patriarchy that we find in the world. Marx's theory of historical materialism attempts to provide us with a "bird's eye view" of human history, one that brings to the fore the things that really shape and determine the culture of our civilizations. My own position, argued for in this paper, is that Marx has two theories- synchronic and diachronic materialism. The former maintains that the superstructure supervenes naturally on the economic structure. Diachronic materialism maintains that the relations of production supervene naturally on the forces of production.

While I reject a great deal of Marx's theories (in particular his critique of capitalism, which I think thereby quickly disqualifies me from being labelled a "Marxist"!), I believe that Marx's technological deterministic account of history (especially when presented in terms of the supervenient interpretation) has a lot of explanatory potential. And here I will elaborate a little on how that account of history can help us diagnosis patriarchy.

I will not delve into all the details of how I think historical materialism can explain patriarchy for that is the subject of a full-length paper (which in fact is in the works). So please permit me to provide a skeletal outline of my thoughts here.

According to one particular account of Marx's theory of history- as characterised by GA Cohen, William Shaw and (more recently) myself- the superstructure of a society (e.g. legal and political institutions) is determined by the relations of production (that is, the relations of effective ownership between producers/nonproducers and productive forces); and the relations of production are in turn determined by the productive forces (e.g. raw materials, technology, etc.).

In order to incorporate an account of patriarchy, we need to supplement the traditional account of productive forces to include reproductive and caring labour. In other words, one important form of work that has sustained human civilization is reproduction and the raising and caring of offspring.

OK, here I will have to abbreviate things a great deal. When we consider Marx's sychronic materialism, say a feudal or slave society frozen in a snapshot of time, we see that various empirical theses must be true if the claim that the superstructure supervenes on the relations of production is true. And in my previous work I identified the following Marxist theses:

T1—Thesis of basic materialism: Humans have basic needs, the fulfillment of which is a precondition for any other form of life (e.g., social, political or intellectual life).

T2—Thesis of human collectivity: Humans have a distinctive history of acting to produce the means for meeting their material needs and they do so in classes.

T3—Scarcity thesis: The historical condition of humans is one of scarcity of goods.

T4—Superstructure stabilizing thesis: The superstructure stabilizes the economic structure.

These empirical theses, once supplemented with some insights concerning the importance of reproduction and “caring labor”, provide us with a powerful explanatory account of patriarchy.

Given our finite productive capacities and the fact of scarcity, human societies can only persist over time if we constantly create new offspring. The modes of production (e.g. agricultural, manufacturing, etc.) for satisfying the basic material needs of humans will dictate the rates of fertility required to sustain a society so that T1 will be satisfied. And thus reproductive labor- including not only the gestation and birth of offspring, but also feeding, caring and educating them (I shall refer to all of these as “caring labor”)- is an essential requirement of any human society. Let us call this T5- the reproduction thesis.

T5— Reproduction Thesis: To persist over time human societies must reproduce at a rate that meets the requirements of T1.

And we can also add to this T6, the Vulnerability Thesis.

T6— Vulnerability Thesis: As a species humans are intrinsically vulnerable to morbidity and mortality. Furthermore, the historical condition of humanity has been one of scarcity of goods and high child mortality

T5 and T6 have profound implications on the social conditions that will likely be imposed on females in any human society, especially those societies whose productive forces necessitate high fertility rates in order to satisfy T1.

The standard Marxist account of production (i.e. who makes material goods like food and other commodities) thus needs to be supplemented with an account of caring labor. For who bears and raises offspring has played an important role in shaping both the relations of production and the superstructures of human societies.

Once supplemented with T5 and T6, the account of the relations of production will be modified in significant ways. For who has effective ownership of their body and powers, especially the powers of reproduction, is one of the most important relations of production in human history. In order to satisfy T1 (at least historically), women themselves cannot have effective ownership of their body and powers, in much the same way that the broader class of the immediate producers could not have effective control over their labor power in slave societies. Slaves could not own their labor power when the only way of satisfying basic material needs was to have humans toil in the arduous way that slaves toiled. And that is why the relations of production of capitalism did not arise two thousand years ago.

Similarly, women (as a class) could not have effective control over their labor power if the requirements of T1 were to be met. And this explains why patriarchal superstructures were enacted. Such superstructures are determined by the relations of production. When women produce exclusively (or primarily) in the domestic sphere they are not able to make serious headway in terms of shaping the superstructure of society.

But how then, did things evolve over time? In particular, the capitalist system has witnessed significant changes to patriarchal institutions and practices, as women enjoy greater access to education and employment, divorce, birth control, etc. These have involved significant changes to the superstructure of society- the law, family and religion. Why did such changes occur? Why, for example, did the women’s rights movements of the twentieth century arise and flourish in some countries (but not in others)?

Much like Marx’s explanation of why the French Revolution occurred, the answer lies with the tendency of productive forces to develop and demolish relations of production that impede the development of those forces. Marx's diachronic materialism provides us with the vital details.

The crucial issue for this reading of historical materialism, in terms of the insights it can provide to help us diagnosis patriarchy, concerns why the relations of production of capitalism came into existence. The standard Marxist reading simply emphasises the effective control workers have over their labor power. But the feminist version of Analytical Marxism I have advanced here expands the relations of production to include the control over a woman’s reproductive capacities and caring labor. Capitalism is the first social system to place substantive control over a woman’s reproductive capacities in the hands of women themselves. Women in advanced capitalist societies have greater access to birth control, abortion, the right to divorce, etc. Why would these rights and opportunities arise in capitalist societies but not in slave or agrarian societies?

The development of the productive forces is the key to this answer. Before capitalism, all human societies were extremely vulnerable to failing to satisfy T1 (basic materialism) due to scarcity, disease and high child mortality rates. Thus the optimal trade-off, in terms of a society’s productive power, was to maximize the number of children women could bear and raise. This investment in reproductive and caring labor would best ensure the demands needed for the productive power of slave and agrarian societies could be met. And so the “ideology” of such societies (in terms of religion and political ideology, etc.) were ones that sought to ensure women satisfied this role.

But industrialization significantly altered this situation. New technologies, ranging from those in the manufacturing sector and the sanitation revolution, to medical advances in reducing child mortality and infectious diseases (e.g. immunizations), meant that the historical imperative to maximize the number of productive contributors a society could produce from birth was no longer essential. Women’s labor power could be better harnessed by contributing to the paid work force, rather than solely (or primarily) in the domestic arena. Thus, because the relations of production typical of more extreme patriarchal practices impeded this trade-off, they were replaced by the relations we see in today’s affluent capitalist societies- such as women having control over their reproductive freedom (e.g. access to contraception, abortion, etc.) and labor power (rights to education, work, etc.).

OK, so how does all this relate to petroleum and the "resource curse"? What it tells us is that we need to look at the productive forces of oppressive societies (rather than their religion, for example) if we really want to understand why patriarchy persists in a particular country. Recall Ross's findings in his recent study: petroleum perpetuates patriarchy. He claims:

This dynamic can help explain the surprisingly low influence of women in mineral-rich states in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Algeria, Libya), as well as in Latin America (Chile), Sub-Saharan Africa (Botswana, Gabon, Mauritania, Nigeria), and the former Soviet Union (Azerbaijan, Russia)…. This study suggests that different types of economic growth can have different effects on gender relations. When economic growth is the result of industrialization—–particularly the type of export oriented manufacturing that draws women into the labor force—–it should also bring about the changes in gender relations that we associate with modernization. But income that comes from oil extraction often fails to produce industrialization. (2008, 120)

This is precisely the kind of finding we would expect if this account of Marx's theory was in fact correct. Oil producing countries should have roughly comparable relations of production and superstructures, including degrees of patriarchy. Furthermore, the unique raw materials of these countries mean that the development of productive forces was strained in ways that it was not in the countries that developed through industrialization in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The new relations of production typical of the industrial revolution, which involve granting women more control over their reproductive capacities as well as greater integration into the paid work force (and eventually political structure of society), have not taken hold (to the same degree) in countries that can reap large revenues through petroleum production without industrializing. This is so because they have not needed the relations of production that would be necessary for industrialization to flourish (e.g. such as large numbers of manufacturing workers, technological advances, etc.). And thus the trade-off between investing women’s labor in caring labor versus non-domestic paid labor has not arisen in such countries. There has been little reason to divert the labor of women away from the primary role of unpaid caring labor. Hence the reason why women in such countries are subject to more oppressive practices than women who live in countries that pursued the development more typical of industrialization (e.g. Canada and the United States).

If one wishes to replicate the progressive improvements witnessed in the world’s developed countries (like the right to vote, inclusion in employment and education, etc.) then one must understand why these superstructures have been created. Such transformation is not simply a matter of “political will”, but rather a complex story of economic development. Such developments can often take decades, even centuries, to develop to a level that brings significant benefits to women.

Superstructures are determined by the relations of production. And the relations of production are, in turn, determined by the productive forces of a society. And so the degree and form of patriarchy present in any particular society is determined by the productive forces that are (and have been) at the disposal of this society. And lasting improvements to patriarchy can only arise when particular kinds of productive forces are present and permitted to develop. The “resource curse” impedes the development of the productive forces typical of a diverse economy. And this impacts the social relations that persist in many of the world’s most oppressive regimes.

A diversified economy is not the only factor that helps integrate women in the paid labor force. The latter is aided by lower fertility rates, which only became feasible with improvements in nutrition, child mortality, birth control and a host of other public health measures. As female labor shifts from predominately caring labor, to the paid labor force, we see greater participation and the empowering of women. Hence the reason why women in affluent liberal democracies enjoy more freedom and autonomy than women in less developed countries.

Anyways, that is a quick rush job on a very complex and important issue. No doubt I will add some further points to this in the future. But that is all for now.


Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Wellderly Study

NatureNews has this interesting story entitled "Genetic fact-check for ageing story". Here is a sample:

A genetic study of healthy elderly people aims to uncover the secret of living to a ripe old age — intact.

The 'Wellderly Study' is a joint initiative between the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, and scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland. It hopes to investigate the genomes of 2,000 people aged 80 or more who take no significant medication and have never suffered from any serious disease.

“We are looking at a cohort that we think is harbouring major secrets. They have disease susceptibility genes, but they don't get the diseases you would have expected. Something has protected them. We hope to find out what that is,” says study leader Eric Topol, who is director of genomic medicine at Scripps.

....Topol and his colleagues Robert Strausberg and Samuel Levy at the Venter Institute finalized their list of 100 candidate genes last week. It includes genes with an unknown or putative role in healthy ageing, and some that are involved in key jobs such as DNA repair and the handling of insulin.


Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Are You Guilty of Gerontologiphobia? Part 2

Today I wish to reflect a bit further on some of the issues I explored in this previous post. Recall that in that post I mentioned this excellent paper on the scientific and political obstacles facing longevity science. One major obstacle that Miller specifically draws attention to as an impediment to manipulating longevity is what he calls “gerontologiphobia”. He describes this as follows:

There is an irrational public predisposition to regard research on specific late-life diseases as marvelous but to regard research on aging, and thus all late-life diseases together, as a public menace bound to produce a world filled with nonproductive, chronically disabled, unhappy senior citizens consuming more resources than they produce. No one who speaks in public about longevity research goes very far before encountering the widespread belief that research on extending the life span is unethical, because it will create a world with too many old people and not enough room for young folks.

Miller is spot on about the common response people have to research on extending the life span. And here I offer a few further thoughts on why people have this common reaction. For if we can understand why people react this way, then hopefully we will be better positioned to convince them to question the assumptions underlying these beliefs.

OK, so why would people think that spending public funds on medical interventions that would retard human aging is unfair? I believe there are two distinct concerns at play here, and they pertain to both international and intergenerational justice.

I already briefly touched on the former here. The general sentiment of this objection is that it is unethical to be very concerned about extending the lifespan of those who already live the longest lives. And thus this feeling is akin to a variation of "survivor guilt". People in the developed world feel guilty that they already enjoy more opportunities for health and wealth. And so they believe that proposals to extend human life through slowing aging are, at a minimum, in bad taste.

The interesting thing to note, however, is that these same feelings of guilt do not arise if one proposes trying to aid compatriots who suffer from cancer, AD, or heart disease. And yet treatments for these conditions would aid many people who already live long lives. So what explains this inconsistency? Very few people feel we should abandon medical treatments for the aged in our own societies, so why does the "survivor guilt" not kick in this case? I suspect it is because people tend to view those who suffer from disease (even aged compatriots) as deserving of medical treatment. And so aiding those who suffer from disease does not stimulate feelings of survivor guilt. But slowing down the aging process sounds like it is something that confers extra benefits on those who are not needy. And thus people believe it is unfair.

So how should we respond to this first issue. As I noted before, it is helpful for people to understand that the diseases of aging afflict people all around the world (not just in the richest countries). Of course we only see people dying in earthquakes, wars and floods on TV. The evening news does not report on the victims of the diseases of aging in India or China. And so our perception of what actually kills people in other parts of the world is really skewed. And so having good data at hand is essential if we want people to recognise that senescence is a global problem. Slowing down aging would help everyone, rich and poor.

Secondly, we need to hammer home the link between aging and disease. It is not just a coincidence that very few people in their 20's and 30's live in nursing homes. The lifelong accumulation of cellular and molecular damage has a profound impact on our risk of disease and death. I understand this is a tough message for an aging population to hear. But it is an important message nonetheless.

Thirdly, some discussion of how we balance concerns of partiality with those of global justice will help. We should not feel guilty that we want to extend the opportunity our children will have for healthy living. Loving parents go to great lengths to ensure their children have the best opportunities for living a healthy life. It would be perverse for a parent to say: "I think we should let our children develop cancer or heart disease when they are aged, because it would be unfair for them to live much longer than people in other countries". Once one reveals how partiality is grounded in common precepts of morality, we realise that we should not feel guilty in trying to expand our opportunities for health. Of course we do have global obligations of justice as well. And so we need to focus our energies on doing things that will really improve the situation of the globally disadvantaged. Having our children die sooner is not the solution. But providing bed nets, tackling HIV, and cutting farm subsidies, these things could actually make a real difference to the life prospects of the globally disadvantaged. And so we should feel pains of survivor guilt for failing on these things, but not for supporting medical research that could help prevent the diseases of aging. Unfortunately our emotions are often diverted to the wrong policies. And this just makes a tough situation that much harder to address.

OK, now to the second issue that gets entangled with debates about the ethics of extending the lifespan-- concerns of intergenerational justice. Interestingly, this issues cuts two different ways, both mistakenly assume that investing money in longevity science fosters a rivalry between generations (i.e. the young and the old). So those who believe slowing aging would only benefit the aged might think it is unfair to spend yet more money on the aged when there are children who lack basic healthcare. On the flip side are those who maintain that spending money on tackling aging would only benefit the next generation, but do nothing for those who are currently aged. So rather than spend money on a novel medical intervention to retard aging, they maintain, we should invest those funds in aiding those who already suffer the afflictions of aging.

Let's start with the second version of this objection- that investing money in a science that will aid future generations, but not the present generation, is unfair. Of course it really is a matter of proportionality. If one were suggesting that all or most public funds should be invested in longevity science then this criticism would have some bite. But that is not the argument being made by the advocates of the Longevity Dividend Campaign. Furthermore, this same complaint could be used to object to funding any science that may take time before it reaps benefits (ranging from alternative sources of energy to new treatments for cancer). So we need to strike a fair balance between meeting the duties we owe to those currently alive, and those who will live in the future. And finally, this science could help treat those who currently suffer the diseases of aging. Recall this post, where I noted that the first clinical trial of an anti-aging molecule is under way for patients with diabetes. Striving to reduce the risks of disease for current and future generations is a very laudable goal! We have benefited enormously from public health measures like the sanitation revolution and vaccinations. And so should strive to leave our children a world where there are even more opportunities for healthy life.

The other side of this critique of inequity between generations is the charge that tackling aging only benefits the aged. But this objection misconstrues what retarding human aging would mean for adults of all ages. It would reduce our risk of disease, frailty and death at all stages of our adult lives (not just once we are above the age of 65). As Olshansky et al note, slowing aging by just seven years would reduce the age specific risk of death, frailty, and disability by about half at every age. People who reach the age of 50 in the future would have the health profile and disease risk of today’s 43 year old; those aged 60 would resemble current 53 year olds, and so on. Thus slowing aging is not something that only benefits us at the latest stages of our lives. It benefits us during our complete adult life, by improving our health profile. And thus the assumption that this science would only benefit the old, or the young, is mistaken. It would benefit adults at all ages.


Friday, August 01, 2008

Cell Article on Effects of "Exercise Pill" on Mice

Cell has a fascinating early online publication on a pill that mimics the benefits of exercise in mice here. The title is "AMPK and PPARδ Agonists Are Exercise Mimetics".

Here is the abstract:

The benefits of endurance exercise on general health make it desirable to identify orally active agents that would mimic or potentiate the effects of exercise to treat metabolic diseases. Although certain natural compounds, such as reseveratrol, have endurance-enhancing activities, their exact metabolic targets remain elusive. We therefore tested the effect of pathway-specific drugs on endurance capacities of mice in a treadmill running test. We found that PPARβ/δ agonist and exercise training synergistically increase oxidative myofibers and running endurance in adult mice. Because training activates AMPK and PGC1α, we then tested whether the orally active AMPK agonist AICAR might be sufficient to overcome the exercise requirement. Unexpectedly, even in sedentary mice, 4 weeks of AICAR treatment alone induced metabolic genes and enhanced running endurance by 44%. These results demonstrate that AMPK-PPARδ pathway can be targeted by orally active drugs to enhance training adaptation or even to increase endurance without exercise.

CNN also has the scoop here. Amazing stuff!


Longevity Genes (and Being Inspired by George Burns)

Growing up in the 1970's and 80's, I recall rather vividly the various media attention which the actor and comedian George Burns would often receive.

Burns lived to be a 100 years old, despite his bravado attitude towards healthy living- like smoking cigars, one of his trademarks (though he has admitted he did not inhale, it was just a prop).

Burns was not of course the oldest living human, far from it. Jeanne Calment lived to be 122 years old. Furthermore, Burn's eschewing (at least to get laughs in public) of healthy living makes him less than the ideal poster child for longevity science. But many of the quotes that are attributed to Burns are inspirational. I'll mention three here.

The first quote is this:

"I look to the future because that's where I'm going to spend the rest of my life".

This is a very profound insight, one I wish we would all take more seriously.
Looking to the future should help us realise how important the aspiration to retard human aging is, for the diseases of aging could be the real scourge of the 21st century.

Burns was very fortunate, but not all of us are born with the "golden genes" he was lucky to inherit. The future of the world's existing 6.6 billion plus population will be a future of unprecedented levels of chronic illness. As the world's population ages, the ravages of time will inflict disease and disability on all countries- from the richest to the poorest. The harms of senescence are universal and severe.

Perhaps the greatest thing to take from Burn's legacy is that he did not let senescence prevent him from continuing on with this work. And this is a large part of the reason why Burns figured so prominently in the media in the last decade of his life, and why his 100th birthday was such a big deal. Making it to 100 years old disease-free and able to work is very rare indeed! As Burns put it in this second, humorous quote:

"If you live to be one hundred, you've got it made. Very few people die past that age".

Finally, I also like this quote from Burns:

"Age to me means nothing. I can't get old; I'm working. I was old when I was twenty-one and out of work. As long as you're working, you stay young. When I'm in front of an audience, all that love and vitality sweeps over me and I forget my age."

Now Burns was of course very fortunate that he was able to continue working and making a living up to the end of his life. But this is not the case for most people. And while it is easy for those in the developed world to dismiss longevity science as something that would not really aid those in the developing countries, these critics fail to realise that poorer countries do not have the generous age-entitlement provisions and health care services that we have. And so remaining healthy and productive is even more vital to their livelihood.

So retarding aging would bring enormous economic, as well as health, benefits to those whose livelihoods are determined by their ability to do ardous physical labour. It is easy for those in rich countries to retort "Who wants to work their whole life!?". Or, "if the aged stay in the work force there will be no jobs for the young!"

Well, the vast majority of the world's population, especially the poorest, would welcome the opportunity to continue making a living rather than suffer the vulnerabilities of senescence. For remaining healthy increases the chances that they will make the income necessary for them, and their families, to survive. And as the populations of developed countries age, and greater strains are placed on age-entitlement programs, I believe we will see that having the opportunity to continue working is a good (not bad) thing.

And so Burns' third quote, when spun in the way I have spun it, reveals another important dimension of retarding human aging- its impact on our socio-economic opportunities. And this is very important for the poorest countries that do not have the state pensions or disability benefits, let alone the healthcare resources, we enjoy.

Why do some people reach 100 years of age without the diseases of aging that afflict most people? As the example of Burns makes evident, it cannot all be down to healthy living! Genes also play an important role.

Rather than sequence the genome of Craig Venter, I wish, if he had lived long enough, we had sequenced the genome of George Burns instead. Understanding the genome of humans that live long, healthy lives could greatly improve our understanding of human health.

So I was thrilled to read this story in the Technology Review which reports that this very research is actually being undertaken. Here is a sample from that story:

An ambitious plan to sequence 100 genes in 1,000 healthy old people could shed light on genetic variations that insulate some people from the ailments of aging, including heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, allowing them to live a healthy life into their eighties and beyond. Rather than focusing on genetic variations that increase risk for disease, scientists plan to focus on genes that have previously been linked to health and longevity.

This is a great example of the point I made in my earlier post on the need to move beyond the disease model. So research like the kind taking place at the Longevity Gene Project at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine(see here) could help us better understand how the George Burns of the world lived such long, healthy lives. And, given that all of our futures will be spent in more advanced aged states than we currently enjoy, we all have an interest in the research being done on longevity genes.


Update: Nova Science has an excellent video on this very topic here.