Sunday, June 06, 2010

Annals of the NY Academy of Sciences Publication

My paper "Why Aging Research?" is now published in the latest issue of the Annals of the NY Academy of Sciences. Here is the abstract:

The American philosopher John Rawls describes a fair system of social cooperation as one that is both rational and reasonable. Is it rational and reasonable for societies that (1) are vulnerable to diverse risks of morbidity (e.g., cancer, heart disease) and mortality and (2) are constrained by limited medical resources, to prioritize aging research? In this paper I make the case for answering "yes" on both accounts. Focusing on a plausible example of an applied gerontological intervention (i.e., an antiaging pharmaceutical), I argue that the goal of decelerating the rate of human aging would be a more effective strategy for extending the human health span than the current strategy of just tackling each specific disease of aging. Furthermore, the aspiration to retard human aging is also a reasonable aspiration, for the principle that underlies it (i.e., the duty to prevent harm) is one that no one could reasonably reject.

And a few samples from the article, to help give you a sense of the different issues I address in the paper:

All else being equal, the more simple and self-evident the justification for supporting a cause, the easier it will be to generate support for that cause. Unlike research on treatments for specific diseases, the justification for prioritizing biomedical gerontology is not self-evident and simple. The skeptic will ask: What are the costs of aging? What kinds of benefits could be reaped by an applied gerontological intervention? What is the “aging ideal” that research on the biology of aging strives to help us realize? Unlike advocates of cancer research, advocates of aging research have no simple and obvious answers at hand to these difficult questions. The field of biogerontology does not reap the benefits that justificatory simplicity often provides advocates of research for specific diseases. And this predicament no doubt helps (at least partially) explain why less than 0.1% of the 2006 National Institutes of Health budget of $28 billion was spent on understanding the biology of aging.3

....A person’s interest in remaining healthy and alive does not evaporate as the number of birthday candles they accumulate increases. The aged, like the young, have an interest in remaining healthy and vigorous for as long as possible. When a person over age 65 is murdered or killed in a car accident we conceive of these events as constituting a serious harm. We believe that there is a moral duty to prevent these harms from being realized, if it is possible to do so. Whether these harms come from an external source that we can easily perceive (such as a criminal wielding a gun or a speeding car) or from complex biological processes that are internal to our biology is irrelevant to the stringency of the moral duty to prevent harm.

....A realistic time frame for realizing the benefits of any health innovation must take seriously the diverse logistics involved in making these benefits accessible to diverse populations. The tasks of monitoring water quality and pollution are complex and large-scale endeavors. Governments face many coordination challenges, such as enforcing compliance, for both rural and densely populated urban settings. And so the general affluence of a country, as well as its natural resources, profoundly influences the quality of sanitation it can offer its citizens. But in the case of developing an antiaging pill to protect against chronic disease, there is good reason to believe that many of these obstacles will be less of a challenge.

Unlike sanitation, the main costs associated with the development of an antiaging pill will most likely be with research and development, rather than the manufacture and dispersion of such a pill. So I believe there is good reason to be optimistic that such an antiaging intervention could be enjoyed by most of the world’s population in a relatively short time from when it is first developed. Especially if we make, as we ought to, the commitment to retard human aging a global, and not just a domestic, health priority.