February 2, 2009

Savulescu, Bostrom and de Grey: Why we need a war on aging

Philosophers Julian Savulescu and Nick Bostrom, along with gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, have declared a war on aging. At the recent 2009 World Economic Forum, these thinkers presented 3 primary arguments to make their case:

1. There is no normal human life span, or if there is, it was very short.

Life-expectancy for the ancient Romans was about 23 years; today the average life-expectancy in the world is close to 64 years. For the past 150 years, best-performance life-expectancy has increased at a very steady rate of 3 months per year.

2. Aging is the biggest cause of death and misery in humanity.

Approximately 100,000 people die each day from age-related causes; about 150,000 people die each day in total. Cardiovascular disease (strongly age-related) is emerging as the biggest cause of death in the developing world.

3. Progress is possible

The goal should be to extend the healthy and productive lifespan, not to just keep people alive longer on respirators or in nursing homes. This is embodied in the concept not of life span but “health span.” The easiest way to do this is to prolong healthy life and not attempt to compress morbidity.

The authors state that the more we understand the biochemical processes involved in senescence the more we find that they look like disease processes:
The accumulation of lysosomal aggregates and amyloid plaques, extracellular protein-protein cross-linking, nuclear and mitochondrial mutations, cell atrophy, cell senescence, and cell loss without replacement: these processes may all be implicated in both pathology and senescence. At the level of genetics and biochemistry, there simply does not seem to be any meaningful distinction between "processes predisposing to or constituting disease" and "normal aging".
Moreover, they argue that ethical objections to radical life extension can be addressed. "Of course extending healthy lifespan might create various problems and challenges," says Savulescu, "But for any possible problem that might arise, one question that we must not fail to ask ourselves is: 'Is this problem so bad that it is worth sacrificing up to 100,000 lives per day to avoid having to solve it?" If the answer is obviously no, then we should look for solutions.'"

The authors address two objections in particular:

1. Obligations to Future Generations

There is an argument out there which suggests we have an obligation to die and turn the world over to the next generation. How long each generation should live raises deep questions about intergenerational relations, quality of life and burden of care. However, there's no reason to believe that healthy and vibrant aged people can still be economically productive, self supporting and providers of knowledge, experience and care for younger generations. The answers are not clear, especially when life extension is coupled with life enhancement.

"At any rate," says Savulescu, "since few of us believe there is a positive moral obligation to have children, that is to create future people, the obligation to create new generations must be weak."

2. Loss of Meaning

There is little empirical evidence to support the suggestion that longer good lives lose meaning. Research shows that life satisfaction remains relatively stable into old age. One survey of 60,000 adults from 40 nations discovered a slight upward trend in life satisfaction from the 20s to the 80s in age. And with the advent of human enhancement– enhancement of cognitive powers, physical abilities and control of mood – this is likely to be even less of a problem.

The authors conclude by noting, "Our goal should be more, much more, longer and better life. We need a war on aging."



Anonymous said...

As cool as it would be to be live to be 100+ years old, it is foolish and selfish to look at aging like a disease. Sure the ancient Romans had a significantly shorter life expectancy than us. But the ancient romans did not hunt at the grocery store. If we had to get our food with a stick and a rock like we used to, most of the world would starve to death.

Our technology has helped us live longer by doing less with our bodies. That is why I opened my own gym. Because we need to exercise to make up for how little we use our bodies. If you want to extend your healthy and productive lifespan and avoid nursing homes, we need to keep our bodies in better shape and stop being so lazy. Who wants to spend 200 years sitting on their ass anyways?

TJ said...

Some interesting points: also what's the source for the image?

@James Peden:

I think what Aubrey de Grey et al are arguing is that from a purely biological perspective it is difficult to make an objective distinction between "aging" and "diseases associated with age."

Therefore it is meaningless to talk of "natural aging" as opposed to "disease."

George said...

Image source:

Unknown said...

I agree with the statements in the post, but the aspect of obligation to future generations may be very difficult to handle well.

Over population is at the heart of nearly all our global problems, and the more we extend lifespans the worse it may get (without improvement in technology and policy). What happens when we can live to a healthy 200, and people like the Octopulets lady just keep making more and more babies? What happens when the population of developed countries grow significantly due to a reduction in the death rate, putting more pressure on the planet to support them? I'm reminded of books like Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars series, where life extension on earth causes significant problems.

I suppose my point is that simply solving the biological problems of aging isn't enough and the broader implications are profound and will require equally complex changes in most other areas of our civilization.

TJ said...


Thanks for that.


If you haven't already read it, I recommend Bruce Sterling's "Holy Fire" for an exploration of the effect of advanced longevity treatments on society.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe overpopulation is an issue here.

Birth rates in the developed world are already below replacement level (far below, in the case of many countries), and most of the Third World is heading in the same direction. Even with dramatic increases in life expectancy, population growth will continue to slow. In fact, if we don't dramatically extend life expectancy, populations will start to implode due to the low birth rates.

World population is at least fifteen times as large as it ever got before about 400 years ago, yet the standard of living is higher everywhere -- in most places, far higher. This is because technological progress has increased our ability to generate wealth faster than the population has grown. Right now population growth is slowing, while technological progress is speeding up.

The world now has twice as many severely-overweight people as underfed people -- an unprecedented situation. Clearly the battle to keep food production ahead of population growth has been won.

The environment is in better shape in the rich countries than it was 100 years ago. The worst environmental damage is going on in poor countries with low population density, because poor countries do not have the resources to make environmental protection a priority.

The main way that technology has extended life expectancy is not by helping us do less, but by eradicating the diseases and famines which used to kill huge numbers of people relatively young. De Grey's program of analyzing and stopping the aging process is an extension of the same process.

Claims that radical life extension is selfish or otherwise immoral strike me as no different than the claims of religious nutters 100 years ago that curing venereal disease would be bad because it would lead to more sexual immorality.

We will soon be able to develop the technology to save people who would otherwise die from the aging process. Letting them die anyway would be no different than being able to cure AIDS or cancer but refusing to do so.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the suggestion! I'll check it out.

I think you make some good points. Historically there was a lot of concern about the growing population in the 17th and 18th centuries, which compared to the present day was very small. The industrial / agricultural revolutions ended up solving the problem they were anticipating, so our global carrying capacity was greatly increased.

My point in my first post was that we'll need to make similar progress to further increase our carrying capacity. For example, if we greatly increase global population without improving our methods of energy production we'll be in trouble as current large scale methods (such as coal and petro) are resource limited and have lots of other problems, environmental, health and otherwise. I'd also argue that the environmental conditions in many developed countries, the United States and Canada especially, are far worse than they were in 1909. I won't elaborate as there's plenty of discussion about the state of the environment elsewhere.

Consider this: what happens when you scale life extension out to indefinite life spans? At that point the issue of birthrate on the Earth will inevitable become a problem, it's only a matter of time. At that point we'll very much have to address the issue from fairly radical policy and technological changes. If we can all live however we please for however long we please, we'll run up against the simple limits of thermodynamics. I'm not suggesting that life extension is a bad thing - I think it's one of the most important areas of research that we can engage in, and that all sentient life has a right to life as soon as they choose. I am saying that there will have to be many other changes to how our civilization exists to facilitate a non-destructive realization of that goal.

Anonymous said...

Overpopulation is not an issue at all.

First, RLE will not come in a moment for all, most of us will know about successful RLE case from news. And then will come a cultural phenomena: when people realize that it IS possible to have children, for example, in 90 (and look like 30), they will stop hurrying at all! While in short term the birthrate may temporarily increase (those who couldn't have children anymore will be able to have), I doubt they will produce more than extra 1-2 per woman. Then the next generation will grow up already knowing that age is not an issue (at least if you have money), and having own children will be a kind of exotic hobby:). What comes next depends on how fast the technologies will be available for everyone: 1) those to rejuvenate, and 2) those to make extra food, colonize the space etc. I think the "living room" scarcity will end long before these "born not to die" grow up. Otherwise having a child will be a luxury (at least for some time), and more and more people will refuse or delay it until they have enough resources.

The key is, people being able to control their reproduction always gain much higher quality of life for themselves and their possible children, by being not tied by blind biological drive "to fill all the room with meat", and the Malthusian hunger chain stops on them. So, as we are not just meat, FULL SPEED AHEAD FOR RLE!

Anonymous said...

My point in my first post was that we'll need to make similar progress to further increase our carrying capacity.

And as I pointed out, we will not make merely similar progress, we will make far greater and more rapid progress. Technological change is speeding up and becoming more fundamental. The population is presently somewhat under seven billion; even if radical life extension is achieved very soon, population is unlikely to increase as much as 50% by, say, 2050. We could easily accommodate that with refinements to current methods of energy production and improvements in efficiency of use far less impressive than what we can actually expect to see over that period.

As for the indefinite future, there is not much point in worrying about it. With or without radical life extension, the problems faced by people in 2100 will be largely beyond our ability to imagine today, and they will address those problems using technology we also cannot imagine today. Think how futile it would have been for policymakers in 1900 to have tried to anticipate and head off the problems of 2009.