The diminishing returns of reactive medicine
In an article for Slate, Jay Olshansky argues in favor of a position that one would expect to be common sense at this point:
While we can extend life in aging bodies through behavioral improvements and medical treatments, the time has arrived to acknowledge that our current model of reactive medicine, of trying to treat each separate disease of old age as it occurs, is reaching a point of diminishing returns.
So what is the reason why vast amounts of money are spent on research to treat age-associated diseases but so little on eliminating or mitigating aging as such? Why is this “one-disease-at-a-time model” so dominant? One reason might be that most people believe that overcoming one specific manifestation of aging is easier to do than overcoming aging itself. Not surprisingly, most academic and commercial research is shaped by short term ambitions or short-term financial interests.
Many people who deal with serious age-associated diseases hope that a cure can be found within their lifetime. This is not so strange if you consider that many people who do advocate meaningful rejuvenation research are technological optimists who think the same thing about overcoming aging. In that sense, people show little interest in supporting research that has little personal benefit to them or close relatives. This is further evidenced by the fact that people are more inclined to contribute to anti-aging efforts that promise benefits in their lifetime. This in turn provokes criticism from mainstream scientists of not being realistic, which further discredits the field.
But as Olshansky indicates, the diminishing returns of the approach to just fight the symptoms of aging should force people to change perspective. Olshansky also observes that “manufacturing survival time in the absence of decelerated aging” can produce a lot of hardship and suffering in old age:
It’s important to acknowledge the fundamental differences between disease and aging. Although age-associated changes in the body produce an increased risk of disease, the reverse is not true. That is, reducing the risk of disease has no influence on biological aging. Thus, if a population is preserved with increasing efficiency by advances in technology that reduce the risk of disease, those saved will live into increasingly later sections of the lifespan where aging takes a greater toll on body and mind. Life extension achieved in this way could extend old age by exposing survivors to the high-risk conditions of frailty that are common, and largely immutable, near the end of life—the very outcome that medicine and public health practitioners are trying to avoid.
For people who have made cryonics arrangements, there is another danger; the possibility of life extension at the price of increased vulnerability to identity-destroying diseases. There is no shortage of cryonics patients with Alzheimer’s or impaired brain function. As much as we would like to deny it, there could be a disturbing trade-off between life extension and true personal survival as long as treatments for neurodegenerative diseases are not available.