In a broad sense, anti-aging is any intervention designed to preserve optimal health, avoid premature death, and to promote maximum lifespan. It is a term that deeply resonates with our desire to extend our life and avoid the changes associated with normal aging. To counter aging is to extend youth or at least the illusion of youth. Is anti-aging real, or is it a contradiction of terms that creates false hope as well an obsession with youthful appearances?
“We know of no intervention that will slow, stop, or reverse the aging process in humans… The loss of fidelity in biological molecules is inevitable. In its present state, nothing lasts forever… The common belief that masking age changes is equivalent to intervening in the fundamental aging process continues to lead to enormous confusion and misunderstanding.”
(Leonard Hayflick, Aging: The Reality – “Anti-Aging” Is an Oxymoron, 2004)
The Fountain of Youth[/caption]Aging is a universal imperative. The natural progression of aging is often a source of fear and insecurity. We know that aging is the root cause of our physical surrender that inexorably leads to our death. The idea of anti-aging as a means to “fight” or “counter” aging offers the possibility of preserving our youth and thereby mitigating the progression of normal aging (i.e. senescence). In one sense, the idea of anti-aging is the avoidance of death a direct extension of our mythological quest for the fountain of youth.
There are three main uses of the term anti-aging.
In the scientific community, anti-aging is a form of scientific research that is focused on slowing, preventing, or reversing the process of aging. One of the primary proponents of the science of anti-aging is Dr. Aubrey de Grey, a “seeker of immortality” who argues that “aging is merely a disease” and claims that he has developed “a road-map to defeat biological aging.” De Grey boldly proposes that, “the first human beings who will live to 1,000 years old have already been born.”
De Grey’s work is built on the assumption that aging is a disease. In other words, he proposes that aging is an abnormal rather than a normal condition of life. In this sense, aging would join the ranks of other diseases such as dementia, cancer, and heart disease. And by extension, the “disease of aging” could be treated and perhaps even cured through medical intervention. From this perspective, anti-aging science gains credibility as being the medical equivalent of fighting a disease.
In his seminal article Aging: The Reality, Leonard Hayflick emphasizes that there is currently “no intervention that will slow, stop, or reverse aging in humans.” He states that the term “anti-aging” is an oxymoron, an idea that is inherently self-contradictory as well as one that generates widespread confusion and misunderstanding. From Hayflick’s perspective, anti-aging is a misnomer.
Perhaps the term “life extension” captures the spirit of this scientific endeavour more effectively than the term “anti-aging.” One of the most important challenges of life extension is not merely to extend the chronological span of life, but to simultaneously extend the quality of the life we experience. It is possible to live “past our time,” that is to say, to have our life medically extended even though the quality of the life we experience has irreversibly deteriorated.
The second important use of anti-aging is found in the medical community, more specifically, in the development of anti-aging medicine that is focused on the early detection, treatment and prevention of age-related disease. This community is closely associated with geriatrics, a branch of medicine focused on reducing the impact of age-related diseases and the provision of medical care specific to the needs of the aged.
The medical anti-aging community is a network of distributed expertise that includes hospitals, hospice-palliative care facilities, geriatric specialists, nursing and retirement homes, the pharmaceutical industry, care-givers, as well as a range of emergent products and services designed to improve intervention with age-related disease. The essence of the medical anti-aging community is to limit the impact of age-related disease during the latter part of life.
The third application of anti-aging is unfortunate. It originates in the general business community in which pseudo-scientific anti-aging products and services are developed with the primary motive of making a profit. In this community, anti-aging is a brand that is manipulated into a system of deception under the guise of health, wellbeing, and beauty. In other words, the general business community of anti-aging is founded on offering solutions to problems that shouldn’t exist.
It is in this community, an industry currently valued in excess of $250 billion, that we see anti-aging become a system of psychological bullying designed to prey upon people’s insecurities and fears about becoming older. In this community, anti-aging is an ageist idea, that is to say, it embraces an unhealthy obsession with youth.
The marketing strategy of the anti-aging industry at large is to manufacture victims, and then sell them solutions to problems that “save” them from their predicament and offer the illusion of a more desirable lifestyle. In this sense, anti-aging is an industry predicated on deception, an addiction to the superficiality of youthful appearances, and a modern-day extension of snake-oil sales.
If we combine the three main types of anti-aging communities we can begin to see that it is comprised of a vast and confusing array of ideas that can only lead to confusion and misunderstanding. A partial list of anti-aging products and services includes:
- Scientific research
- Medical technologies
- Natural cures
- Anti-aging Diets (e.g. calorie restricted)
- Cosmetic surgery
One of the requirements of the second half of life is the development of a set of personal beliefs about anti-aging and how we can best negotiate our vulnerabilities. This task becomes increasingly difficult in a scientific community that is steeped in uncertainty, a medical community that purports to solve health issues with drugs and pills, and a marketplace that permits deceptive branding and counterfeit claims to flourish. But perhaps there is a way out.
Our primary discipline in the second half of life is to learn to age with grace, creativity, belonging, resilience, and gratitude rather than “fighting” it, trying to “counter” it, or characterizing it as a malevolent force of nature. It is true that aging presents a profoundly difficult reality for all of us, but the experience of aging should not be an affront to our vanity, a way to mask reality, a journey into weakness and isolation, or a collection of carefully preserved anxieties. To experience aging is to experience the awe of being alive in all its beauty and adversity.
It may be that anti-aging is a fundamental contradiction of terms that originates in our fear of old age. To embrace the mercurial realm of anti-aging is perhaps the equivalent of embracing nonsensical ideas such as anti-breathing, anti-experiencing, and anti-living.