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People Who Justify Aging are Profoundly Wrong – Aging is Abhorrent
Maria Konovalenko   Jun 14, 2012   Ethical Technology  

I read this recent opinion in the New York Times, entitled “Age and Its Awful Discontents” by Louis Begley, and it resonated with my personal feelings about the topic. The author vividly describes the last years of his mother’s life, who had been a widow for the previous 40 years before her death.

Begley lets us feel the pain in her joints and in her heart. He obviously sees aging as nothing but misery and loneliness. But I think he misses the point – he believes his mother’s solitude is the reason of her woes, but it actually is aging, her declined health, pain and suffering – these are the real reasons of her tragedy.

If she had been young she would have had no diseases, but only good looks and the opportunity to start over, but alas! she rots alive. Louis Begley caught the very overwhelming in its inevitability, horrifying feeling that it’s all over, no need to buy new costumes. They will not be worn for a long time and they’re not worth spending time and money.

Mr. Begley was widely criticized – and by whom? Who do you think justified aging? The Executive Director and chief scientific officer of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation wrote:

“Mr. Begley’s bitter portrayal of aging is neither universal nor inevitable… Old age should never be measured by the metrics of youth. An adaptive rather than a maladaptive response to old age and even frailty is possible.”

This is unbelievable. So wrong. In reality it’s exactly the opposite – aging is universally debilitating and inevitable. 

While this type of words are coming out of the mouths of people who are the advocates for aging research, nothing good will happen. There will be no money for research to live longer in a younger body. And the reason is the faulty idea that aging can be healthy, productive, or enjoyable. It can’t by definition.

Aging is the worst thing and it’s happening to everyone of us every second of our lives, sucking up our strength, youth and beauty. I want to fight this widely spread idea of how old age is full of pleasure, when your grandchildren sit on your lap. Sure, that’s nice, but it’s not even remotely enough.

For example, it would be much better to have the possibility to go to a night club after your grandchildren’s visit and be able dance all night long. But this can never happen while we have leaders of Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundations saying that aging is ok. Opinion leaders have to understand how harmful justifying aging is – this position is killing us.

And I want to live. I want all the people on Earth to live. In order to achieve this everybody who is involved in the field of aging has to be more courageous. They have to speak up for themselves and for their work. They have to say that they want to fight aging, that they want life extension.

Cancer researchers say that cancer is their greatest enemy, that cancer has to be eiliminated and voila! – the amount of money that went to cancer research from the National Cancer Institute in 2010 was almost 5.1 billion dollars – that’s like 5 times more than on aging. And cancer is just an individual case of an aging-related pathology. We have to learn from oncologists, cancer researchers and advocates. We are fighting aging and we have to speak about it freely and explicitly.

Make no mistake – our goal is to defeat aging completely.

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.



COMMENTS

Thanks for the piece, Maria. Very honest and passionate.

We need to propose a major cultural change indeed. So many brilliant men have deliberately tried to hide the real nature of aging and dying, to make people feel better about their morality, about the progressive disintegration of our individual form. Those who justify aging are not just wrong. They are deceptive. If aging is not a problem, who would be so stupid to search for a solution? By propagating these false, idyllic images of aging - cultural champions had been crowding out serious attempts to do something about the unpleasant tail of our existence. So, yes, I believe we need to speak more frankly, like Maria has done, about this. Fatalism has never taken anyone too far. We would not be where we are now - if our forefathers listened to those who praised the joys of eating raw meat, and sleeping in dark caves.

I believe that we should focus on two points : (1) showing aging and death as problems, (2) showing that these problems are not unsolvable by nature. The first one is easier. Who wants to get old and die, honestly? The second one, a bit more complicated. Perhaps, it would be good to remind skeptics of concrete, real immortal lifeforms - like the immortal jellyfish, Turritopsis nutricula. Can’t we do better than a stupid marine invertebrate?

What they call ‘adaptive,’ I call ‘sour grapes.’

And historically there have those responses because there’s so little one could do about the situation. But we now live in a time when the grapes are just barely out of reach.

Indeed, for those who want to cure all ‘disease,’ but don’t believe we should change ‘normal aging,’ I wonder just what they think such a person would look or be like? The closest I can imagine is the woman in a recent Raymond James commercial who looks quite ‘elderly,’ yet is appears healthy and active at the age of 187. (And I’d even settle for *that,* were I not convinced that even better is ultimately possible.) Still, even that ad seems to take seriously the idea that people may ultimately live, and live well, far beyond our current notions of a ‘normal’ lifetime…and that those who try to schedule their retirement investments to run out no sooner than they do, may want to re think their notions of how much time they may really have…

I think it is apathy and feelings of helplessness that have so often led the populace to romanticize the aging process.  In order to get the masses to fight it, they have to have a tangible hope that it is a fight that can be waged.  After all it is hard to get support for a battle that no one thinks can be fought.  I think if we could prove to the masses that the masses (Not just a wealthy elite few) could benefit from this war, we’d already be engaged into it.  I think it is acceptance due to lack of evidence that it can be any other way and a nagging fear that all the if it is successful will reinforce an already problematic socioeconomic gap that does little to nothing for the vast majority.

Nostalgia is something I discovered after moving to the Midwest: nostalgia even embracing a sentimentality for when death was more of the great equalizer than it is today. One factor for religion being more popular in medieval times was being wealthy didn’t provide as much of the longevity benefits such does today—death really and truly was the great equalizer in the days when surgeons were barbers and anesthetics didn’t exist.

Andre, I would suggest that we need to separate aging and death for the moment.

The reality is that some people don’t seem to age until almost the moment of their death, while others start falling apart in their thirties or even earlier. The studies need to be two-fold. We need to figure out what causes aging and determines its rate. There are plenty of theories but little hard information yet. The second goal is to find out what makes the healthy people so healthy. We don’t want to study the people who live right and are easy on their bodies, rather the people who smoke and drink and dance and still aren’t much different in their eighties than they were in their twenties.

Once we have a better understanding of the aging process, we may be on the way to being able to state the death problem in more valuable terms.

I appreciate the passionate insistence on curing aging as a goal, but stressing the horrors of getting older strikes me as problematic. See my blog for a more detailed reaction.

@Pastor_Alex

Right, we can separate aging and death - essentially for the reasons you listed, in particular the cognitive ones. We still need to figure out a lot of things, before intervening on humans.

However, any man or woman on this planet do seem to age, as years go by. A small anecdote. I live near the Alps, there are a lot of mountains around here. And once I saw next to me an old man, probably around 80 years old, walking faster than me. It was an extremely difficult track. I could not believe that a man so old could be in such a spectacular physical shape. But, the scene was so amazing exactly because the man had all the other signs of aging, his appearance gave away his senescence. So, even if few people manage to keep fit - physically fit, and mentally fit - until death, aging always debilitates the body, reduces the effectiveness of a number of metabolic and physiologic processes. It shows and it cannot be escaped. And, I believe, the sooner we recognize the problematic nature of senescence, the better - someone might just find a (not-merely-cosmetic) “cure”.

Interesting. And I mean that in the most ironic way possible.

There is of course a minor question of resources involved, here: If we end aging, which presumably means ending or at least putting off death for an indeifinite period of time, what happens to our resource utilization? We’ve gotten lucky over the past few decades, with regard to keeping up with demand for resources, but signs are that we’re coming to the end of that run as the oil runs low and we take our sweet time finding energy generation replacements. (Food needs energy. People need food. More people need more food. Starvation is also evil.)

I’m familiar with the idea that we don’t need to worry about that because the number of people who’ll transcend is relatively small, but that’s pretty ethically problematical, too—it’s tantamount to saying ‘aging is evil for us, but we don’t have to worry about ending it for other people who can’t afford to avoid it.’

And I haven’t even gotten to the deeply creepy tone of these pronouncements. I get it: You’re afraid to die. So am I. Most people throughout history have been, but the various ethos they’ve rationalized to deal with that are rightly labeled religion, not science.

Basically this ethical stance only works if you assume that we’ll always be able to find a technical fix for the problems that this attitude creates for us. Of course, that’s our traditional assumption—but it should be clearer and clearer to us as time passes how bankrupt that assumption is.

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