When someone dies young, we say that this person’s death is tragic, that he or she died before his or her time. When someone dies in advanced age, we say that the deceased has lived a full life and it must have been their time to go as if age alone was the culprit. Both stances are very problematic form a scientific standpoint because, you see, nowhere does our biological makeup have a kill switch. There is not one gene or one process that acts like a ticking clock and once it runs out, we die. In fact there are creatures that seem to be near-immortal in this regard, weird jellyfish and microbes that can regenerate themselves when their bodies become worn and frail as if to start their lives anew. To blindly submit to mortality as if it’s somehow ordained by some force from above is to neglect the complete lack of any scientific basis for “our time to go” and ascribe to the frequently repeated misnomer that people die from old age when it’s not the old age that kills the person, but simply makes him or her very easy prey for numerous diseases.
Considering aging a disease or a medical condition is actually a lot more important than it might sound because at stake is government approval for anti-aging drug trials, with researchers able to communicate that their work is valid despite the fact that it fights something doctors don’t see as a disease. In reality, aging is a complex degenerative condition that needs to be treated like one and while there is no one switch we can flip to stop it, there are things we can do to slow it, partially reverse some of its effects, and allow for a longer period of life in good health and with fewer aches and pains. If the worst thing that comes out of these drug trials are treatments that don’t actually extend our lifespans but drastically improve our physical and mental fitness, that’s already a huge net gain because not only are people better off, but we’d also save trillions with less acute treatment for typical physical and cognitive problems of old age being necessary. It’s also a very realistic goal over the next 15 years provided that the funding is there, of course.
We should think of aging much the same way we think of HIV and AIDS. Left untreated, it won’t kill us by itself, but it will open enough doors for something to come along to do that dirty work, and so we should fight it with an arsenal of lifestyle changes. It’s going to be many years before we see rousing successes, but we already have promising pathways desperately in need of the funding and scientific rigor and legitimacy to be taken to their full potential. Convincing those in charge of the purse strings and regulatory approvals that they’re fighting a real problem, rather than just messing around with something nature has preordained, will be crucial because when they don’t think a valid problem is being fought or a valid question is being asked, they’re rather unlikely to keep writing the checks and giving green lights. There’s a cultural battle to be fought here because history is replete with those who claimed to know how to beat aging or death with potions and rituals which yielded nothing or even killed their patients. But armed with the basic understanding of how biology actually works, today’s scientists have a real shot at it.