Why Fight Aging?

Aubrey de Grey of the Methuselah Foundation & Tanya Jones of Alcor

July 11th, 2008

The free public event preceding the Understanding Aging conference organized by the Methuselah Foundation was entitled “Aging: the disease, the cure, the implications.”

Held in Royce Hall at UCLA on the evening of June 27th, 2008, the event aimed at putting the postponement of aging more firmly on the political and social map than ever before. There, biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey offered his own underlying arguments for why aging can and should be the target of current-day regenerative medicine.

The following transcript of Aubrey de Grey’s presentation from Aging: The Disease, The Cure, The Implications has been corrected and approved by the speaker.

Why Fight Aging?

Ultimately for me it’s a very straightforward thing: aging causes suffering and death. What part of this can anyone not understand?

It is very straightforward that aging is not enjoyable. The thing is, why do people not complain about it at all? I call it the “pro-aging trance,” a sort of collective hypnosis. People say things like, “You know, wouldn’t it be so boring… not getting Alzheimer’s?” “Wouldn’t dictators live forever?”

“Dictator” comes really low on the lead table of risky jobs, doesn’t it? It seems to me these are problems which, while I’m not ridiculing them utterly, what I am ridiculing is the idea that they add up to an argument to engage in any sort of hesitation on the crusade to defeat aging.

Ultimately, aging kills a hundred thousand people every single day worldwide–that’s two thirds of deaths, that are from causes that young adults basically never die of. In the developed world it is something in the region of 90% of all deaths. And, of course, most of those deaths are preceded by a great deal of suffering, dependence and debilitation.

This is something that we have to actually ask ourselves: if you have an argument that says it would cause problems if we did not have aging, then fine. But if you are trying to use that argument to say, therefore, let’s not go there… then you had better be able to argue the problems are so serious as to outweigh the deaths of all these people, or else don’t waste my time.

Some people say, “I don’t want to live to a thousand.” I don’t want to live to a thousand, necessarily. I don’t even know if I want to live to a hundred. But I do know I want to make that choice when I am 99, rather than having it gradually removed from me by declining health. This is what it comes down to. The extension of lifespan by the defeat of aging is not the point–at least it is not the main point for me, and I do not think it is the main point for most people who are engaged in this crusade.

The purpose is to alleviate the suffering that goes with getting decrepit, frail and dependent. Of course, this includes not just those who are suffering that, but the suffering of their loved ones.

The extension of average lifespan is essentially a side benefit. It is something that will happen because the way that we are going to do this, using regenerative medicine, will also mean that you have only the same probability you did when you were a young adult of dying peacefully in your sleep without any of these diseases. In other words, a very low probability indeed. You will indeed on average live a great deal longer, and I don’t think you’ll complain if you do. However, that is not the purpose. The purpose is to alleviate suffering.

The question of how we would actually cope with the number of people on the planet comes up a great deal in these discussions, and so it should. It is a very important question. What we must ask ourselves is whether it is a question that we are supposed to decide the right answer to. Ultimately, there are three options for humanity. I claim that it is up to those in the future who have these therapies at their disposal to make the choice between these options.

At the moment, we have a high death rate, because we have not fixed the thing that kills most people. Therefore, we don’t have this choice. The idea of hesitating on this basis to develop these therapies ultimately amounts to the idea of denying humanity of the future the most fundamental choice of all, the choice of whether to live or to die. We do not have a right to do that. The future has a right to decide this question for itself.

The reasons for this extraordinary flight from reason, the sort of reason that all of us normally engage in, is psychological. There are three big reasons why people just won’t be rational about this question. Those reasons all have something going for them, so I want to enumerate them in some detail. The first thing is fear of the unknown. Fear of the unknown is actually a pretty reasonable emotion, because ultimately it is okay to be more scared of the downsides of an unknown situation than to be looking toward the upsides, up to a point. But, as I say, it is a question of sense of proportion.

Here is a big quote that you don’t have to read, from William Hurlbut, a famous bioethicist, Stanford professor and a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. He says the reason why he is not up for all of this work is that he is not convinced that it would be a good thing. It might not play out to produce greater happiness, and that’s good enough for him. Well, I must say it’s not good enough for me. Arguing for inaction on the basis of the possibility that this might be bad is ultimately the precautionary principle gone mad.

The other thing that is important to emphasize is that we are standing here today explaining to you that regenerative medicine is within striking distance of doing serious damage to aging, but a few years ago it was not in striking distance. Then it was perfectly reasonable to regard aging as something that would not be materially tackled in the foreseeable future. That changes everything. When you are faced with a fate that is going to befall you, probably quite some long time in the future, and it is going to be really horrible, and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it, then it is perfectly rational to put it out of your mind. Otherwise, you are just going to spend your miserably short life being preoccupied by it.

Having determined that it is reasonable to put it out of your mind, it does not matter how you do that. It does not matter how irrational your rationalizations actually are. Of course, that all changes when the inevitability of this fate becomes unclear. As soon as that happens, the “rational” irrationality becomes part of the problem– a very big part.

Finally, and most importantly, I want to mention what I think is the biggest psychological reason why there is so much ambivalence about doing anything about aging. This is something which applies to a certain extent even in the work Bruce Ames spoke about with regards to things we can do already in terms of diet. It applies much more strongly to things we cannot do yet, and whose time frame for emergence is uncertain.

Nobody can really imagine the size of galaxies. It is just too big for our imagination. We cannot actually visualize the width of the galaxy. We all understand that we cannot do that, and we do not act irrationally as a result. What I want to put to you is that people who have difficulty taking the defeat of aging seriously as a desirable goal are in a corresponding kind of position. It is not their imagination that is problematic– it is simply their emotions. Their emotional capacity is not big enough to hold onto the immense enormity of the tragedy of aging. They put it out of their minds because it allows them to have a certain amount of peace in their lives.

I’m proud to say that I am not one of those people: I take aging seriously and I want to fix it. I thought I would end with a quote, for those of you who may still be unsure about this, from an icon of contemporary moral philosophy. He said, in connection to the case of Terri Schiavo, “it is always wise to err on the side of life” when in doubt. That is true now in the case of aging, just as it was with Schiavo. I’ll stop there.