Seamus O’Mahony

Biogerontology is the study of the biological mechanisms which control ageing, with the ultimate aim of developing interventions to delay death. In some animals, selective breeding and caloric restriction can lead to significant increases in longevity. There is no evidence, however, that such interventions work in humans. A variety of drugs and nutritional supplements (“nutraceuticals”) have been postulated as effective anti-ageing treatments, but – as some biogerontologists concede – trials looking at interventions to delay ageing would be extremely difficult to conduct, as the only meaningful end-point would be age at death, likely to be several decades after commencing the intervention. Nevertheless, there is a growing belief within biogerontology that effective strategies to delay ageing will inevitably emerge. If ageing can be delayed in other mammals, they argue, then it is only a matter of time that it can be delayed in humans, too. The biogerontologist Richard A Miller wrote in 2002: “Thus one can, with some confidence, expect that an effective antiageing intervention might increase the mean and maximal human life span by about 40 percent”. (1)

Biogerontology regards itself as a Cinderella science, given little in the way of government funding, and viewed with suspicion by both the general public and other biomedical researchers. Richard A Miller has coined the word “gerontologiphobia” to describe this distrust: “there is an irrational public predisposition to regard research on specific late-life diseases as marvellous but to regard research on aging, and thus on all late-life diseases together, as a public menace bound to produce a world filled with non-productive, chronically disabled, unhappy senior citizens consuming more resources than they produce.” (1) This perceived prejudice against their discipline has led to many biogerontologists to restate their mission as the pursuit of “healthy ageing”, and increasing “healthspan” (rather than “lifespan”).

If effective treatments to decelerate ageing were to emerge, what would the societal implications of such treatments be? The biogerontologist David Gems wrote: “Animal model studies show that decelerated ageing extends the healthy period of adulthood. However, it could well extend the yeas of disability too, and result in an expansion of morbidity – at least in absolute terms (i.e. years of life), though perhaps not in relative terms (percentage of life). In this respect, decelerated ageing could prove to be a mixed blessing.” (2) It could be argued that decelerated ageing postpones, rather than avoids suffering. Decelerated ageing might even increase suffering through expansion of morbidity.

Some biogerontologists refer to their critics as “life cycle traditionalists”, who regard ageing as natural, necessary – even healthy. This view has been labelled “apologism” by the historian Gerald Gruman. “Apologism,” he wrote,  “is the antonym of meliorism, and “condemns any attempt by human action basically to alter earthly conditions.” (3) Richard A Miller lamented the opposition to what he sees as the unalloyed benefits of life extension: “But the obstacles blocking the development of the hypothetical discipline of applied gerontology are at this point about 85percent political and 15 percent scientific.2 (1) Perhaps the greatest obstacle to decelerated ageing is not public and political mistrust, or the antimeliorism of “apologists”, but species-specific biology. Suresh Rattan, a leading biogerontologist conceded: “However, one major challenge still is to translate the information gathered from studies performed on experimental model systems of insects, nematodes, rodents and others to human beings.”4

The concept of a “new pill” to delay ageing is a variant of the “magic bullet” which has been the promise of modern biomedicine. In the mid-twentieth century, medicine did indeed produce magic bullets against infectious diseases, but the diseases of old age and degeneration have proved resistant to this magic. We already know that simple lifestyle practices such as regular exercise, avoidance of alcohol and tobacco, a plant-based diet, and (perhaps most importantly) meaningful social relationships, increase longevity and promote healthy ageing. The anti-ageing pill promised by biogerontology has, so far, turned out to be as elusive as the elixir of life sought by the ancients. It would be more profitable for us to adopt those simple practices that we know will help us live longer, happier lives.

References

  • Gems D. Tragedy and delight: the ethics of decelerated ageing. Phil Trans R Soc 2011;366:108-12.
  • Gruman GJ. A history of ideas about the prolongation of life. Tran Am Phil Soc 1966;56:1-97.
  • Rattan SIS. Biogerontology: research status, challenges and opportunities. Acta Biomed 2018;89(2):291-301.

Recommendation

Public health and governments should prioritise simple lifestyle measures known to promote healthy ageing, rather than funding the development of “magic pills”.

One thought on “Biogerontology: delaying death, promoting healthy ageing, or both?

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