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Why It Is Ethical to Cure the Disease of Aging

Maria Konovalenko
By Maria Konovalenko

Posted: Feb 27, 2013

Arthur Caplan, renowned bioethicist, presents simply brilliant argumentation that aging is an unnatural process in this paper. It’s a must-read. I’d love to highlight the main thoughts that I find are profoundly important for the whole fighting aging field.

Why do the doctors treat atherosclerosis and cancer, but not the physiological changes and deteriorations, associated with aging?

Progeria—rapid ageing in a child—is considered a horrible disease, whereas the same changes occurring 80 years later are considered normal and unworthy of medical interest.

The reason is because aging is not being thought of as a disease by doctors and the rest of the world. But it should be!

… in medical dictionaries, disease is almost always defined as any pathological change in the body. Pathological change is inevitably defined as constituting any morbid process in the body… ageing would there- fore seem to have a prima facie claim to being counted as a disease.

One thing that does differentiate ageing from other processes or states traditionally classified as disease is the fact that ageing is perceived as a natural or normal process.

So, the main thesis of the article is that aging is an unnatural process. Dr. Caplan says that if that were not true, then there must have been compelling evidence that aging is natural “and, as such, intrinsically good thing.” This brings us to figuring out what is believed to be natural in medicine. Well, it turns out, one view is that it’s common and normal process that affects 100% of the population.

Coronary atherosclerosis, neoplasms, high blood pressure, sore throats, colds, tooth decay and depression are all nearly universal in their distribution and seem to be inevitable phenomena, yet we would hardly call any of these things natural. The inevitability of infectious disease does not cause the physician to dismiss infections as natural occurrences of no particular medical interest.

The other point of view on what is natural and what’s not comes from considering purpose and function. In order to decide whether aging is natural or not, we should define its function. There are two explanations. The first one is religious, where the vindictive god wants the people to remember they are morally weak. As Dr. Caplan notes, this can’t be used as a scientific explanation, which leaves us with the second point of view “that the purpose or function of ageing is to clear away the old to make way for the new.” Evolutionary biologists tried to explain what aging is and why it is needed based on the concept of natural selection.

More surprisingly, the scientific explanation of ageing as serving an evolutionary role is also not true, because it rests on a faulty evolutionary analysis.

Given that selective forces act on individuals and their genotypes and not species, it makes no sense to speak of ageing as serving an evolutionary function or purpose to benefit the species.

I find this thought genius. It seems to me so obvious now when I’ve read it. Indeed, this has always been overlooked by aging biologists. Evolutionary theories have always seemed so dangerously appealing that it might have drawn aging biologists (like Tom Kirkwood, for example) away from fighting aging. A lot of scientists still think aging is natural and I believe the evolutionary theories have played a major role in forming this belief. This may be the underlying reason why researchers can’t accept the thought that aging can and should be cured. Dr. Caplan defines aging in the following way:

Ageing exists, then, as a consequence of a lack of evolutionary foresight; it is simply a by-product of selective forces that work to increase the chances of reproductive suc- cess. Senescence has no function; it is simply the inadvertent subversion of organic func- tion, later in life, in favour of maximizing reproductive advantage early in life.

The common belief that ageing serves a function or purpose, if this belief is based on a misapprehension of evolutionary theory, is mistaken. And, if this is so, it would seem that the common belief that ageing is a natural process is also mistaken. And if that is true, and if it is actually the case that what occurs during the ageing process parallels the changes that occur during paradigmatic examples of disease (Boorse, 1975), then it would be reasonable to consider ageing as a disease.

The explanation of why ageing occurs has many of the attributes of a stochastic or chance phenomenon. And this makes ageing unnatural and in no way an intrinsic part of human nature. As such, there is no reason why it is intrinsically wrong to try to reverse or cure ageing.

There is no reason why we can’t call aging a disease. There is no ethical reason why we shouldn’t try to slow down or reverse aging. There is no ethical reason why we shouldn’t fight aging – the worst disease of all times.

Maria Konovalenko is a molecular biophysicist and the program coordinator for the Science for Life Extension Foundation. She earned her M.Sc. degree in Molecular Biological Physics at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology.
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I like his conclusion, but I’m sad to see he got there through bad reasoning.

“Dr. Caplan says that if that were not true, then there must have been compelling evidence that aging is natural ‘and, as such, intrinsically good thing.’”

Natural is not the same as good, much less intrinsically good. Many natural things are, indeed, bad (for humans, anyway). Whether or not aging is good or bad has little to do with whether it’s natural and so much more to do with whether it’s helpful, useful, or desirable. The answer to all three, I think, is no.

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