We Should Treat Aging Like a Disease

Andrew Merz, Contributing Writer

Aging is part of the circle of life—we’re born, we grow up, we age, and we die. Most of us accept aging as inevitable and then turn our mind to more uplifting things. This is a reasonable thing to do when it is assumed is that there is nothing you can do about it. But is that assumption still correct?

Medicine has made sweeping advances in the last 100 years. In the United States, life expectancy has risen by over 30 years since the early 1900s. Most of these improvements have come from public sanitation, vaccines, and antibiotics. Today, the majority of the diseases that kill people in developed nations are those that are associated with aging—heart disease, cancer, dementia. But today, as medical science advances in its understanding of biological processes on the molecular level, methods of slowing the aging process itself in humans are becoming feasible.

Researchers have already discovered more than a dozen methods of increasing the lifespans of mice by 20 percent or more compared with control groups. The most well-known technique is calorie restriction, but more recently other methods have been discovered, including drug therapies and genetic modification. For instance, a drug called rapamycin, originally developed to prevent rejection in organ transplant patients, has been shown to increase the lifespans of mice by 30 percent.

Genetic modification to extend the lifespan of adult humans may become possible if an experimental treatment known as gene therapy is perfected. Although gene therapy is not yet a widely used treatment, it has already successfully cured several hereditary diseases, including hemophilia and leukemia in human trials. On top of this, stem-cell therapies provide another promising avenue for regenerative and anti-aging medicine.

If you accept that medicine may soon be capable of developing therapies to extend the human lifespan, you must then wonder, should it do so? Of course, the quality of the years gained by such treatments must be considered, as surely few would desire extended years of decrepitude and helplessness. In reality, therapies to extend the human lifespan would likely bring additional years of youthfulness and health, followed by additional years of infirmity. With those extended years of healthiness, an individual would have more time to enjoy life and have an impact on the world. These treatments could serve to empower the elderly, allowing them to live longer, more productive lives, and enjoy more quality time with their friends and loved ones.

Some may consider such treatments to be fundamentally unnatural. However, it bears asking: is something inherently good or desirable just because it is natural? There are plenty of naturally occurring diseases, whether they be pathogenic, genetic, or otherwise, that create untold suffering in the lives of millions. Few would oppose the search for cures to these ailments. Besides, it is doubtful that many critics of life extension treatments would remain steadfast in their opposition when they start to go blind, are crippled by arthritis, or begin to be robbed of their own minds by Alzheimer’s disease.

Recognizing that life extension treatments could soon revolutionize human life for the better, my conclusion is that these treatments should be vigorously pursued. While it must be acknowledged that these potential treatments pose considerable ethical and social challenges, as a whole, none of these challenges overcome the benefits of allowing individuals to live longer, healthier lives. On the other hand, it must also be acknowledged that many times anticipated scientific breakthroughs have failed to emerge.

Research into life extension therapies must be approached with a high degree of humility and limited expectations. Most likely, any successful treatments to emerge within our lifetimes would provide only a modest benefit (say five to 10 years at best), and new therapies would incrementally improve with time. But surely most would agree that the extra healthy life would be worth it (assuming it is ethically obtained).

Scientists have already shown numerous methods of increasing the lifespans in mice and other animals. Although there are undeniable differences in biology between humans and various animals, these studies provide solid evidence that treatments to extend the human lifespan are possible. Now that we have seen that such therapies are within our grasp, we have a moral obligation to pursue them in an ethical and scientifically rigorous manner in order to better preserve and protect human life.

(Visited 75 times, 1 visits today)