LEAF Director Elena Milova recently attended the International Longevity and Cryopreservation Summit in Madrid and gave a talk about effective advocacy and how we can engage better with the public as advocates for rejuvenation biotechnology.
Her talk touches upon effective message delivery as well as the basic principles of teaching, known as the didactic principles.
If we can learn to master these techniques it will help us all become better advocates and champions of rejuvenation biotechnology. Her talk is available below, and for those who prefer reading, there is a text version of the main points addressed during the presentation. The presentation slides used in the video are available here or here in pdf.
Effective advocacy for rejuvenation biotechnology
One of the most frequent questions we at LEAF/Lifespan.io hear is this: when will innovative therapies to delay, stop, and eventually reverse age-related damage become available?
This is not an easy question to answer, because the pace of progress depends on many factors – predominantly, funding. Fundamental studies on aging are not well-funded and the accumulation of knowledge necessary to proceed from lab work to clinical trials and then clinical practice does not happen fast enough.
Government funding is more often allocated to mainstream areas, such as research on single diseases. Business, for its part, does not show much interest in fundamental science, because usually there is no final product that can be sold.
The only other source of funding is the general public. But most people are not yet sufficiently informed about the plausibility of bringing the aging processes under medical control and do not share the values of our community. Sometimes (to be frank, pretty often) activists trying to engage the public in an enlightening conversation can encounter resistance or even rejection.
Life extension, longevity and immortality are just not popular with people
Imagine for a moment that you are a teacher at a school teaching students about longevity science. If the students are not interested in your lectures, what does this mean? What does it tell you about the way the material is structured and provided? It could be that the lectures are probably ignoring several basic principles of teaching, known as the didactic principles.
One of these principles is that learning requires active, conscious participation. This means that students will seek and absorb information if they are interested, or they will ignore it if they do not see any personal benefit in it. We must offer people what they really want and we should do this at the very beginning of the conversation.
So what do most people want? It’s life extension right?
Wrong! Studies show that when people are asked “how long would you like to live?” with no other conditions specified, people added around 5 to 10 years to the average life expectancy for their country and that was it [1-4]. Why is this? Well, it’s all about the basics.
If we do not first explain the aging processes, the connection with age-related diseases and the repair-based solutions that lead to healthy longevity, people think longevity means a longer life of prolonged ill health and frailty. Who wants to spend another ten or twenty years in a wheelchair or in a care home? And this is exactly the image most people have when these words are used.
This is what the expression “life extension” means to the majority of people – and this is why we should avoid beginning the conversation with it. “Life extension” does not sound attractive and the same goes for the word “longevity” when it is used too early in the conversation and alone without context.
Ok, so maybe people want immortality?
Nope! There was an interesting study done by Mair Underwood published in Rejuvenation Research in 2014 . The goal of the study was to evaluate the contents of 19 movies depicting immortal people (only people, other species were not considered) to see how many of them represent immortals in a positive way.
The score was 17 versus 2. In the vast majority of these movies immortals were depicted as reckless, mad, selfish, morally inferior, sinful, heretic, violent, cynical, aimless, and here we are running out of negative adjectives. Apart from being bad people, immortals were often depicted as suffering from unbearable tedium.
By offering people the idea of immortality, advocates of healthy longevity are trying to sell something that does not look appealing at a first glance. Will the students look for more information about how to stop aging? Unlikely, as their motivation has just been killed by a poor choice of words.
It’s all about how you start the conversation
At the same time, sociological studies show that if the possibility of perfect health throughout life is introduced into the equation from the very beginning, people show much more interest and support for the idea of prolonging life .
People literally switch from one camp to the other: those who just did not want to live for more than 80 years now decide they want to live to more than a hundred, and those who just wanted to get to 120 are suddenly ready to live to 150 or beyond.
Another important point in the beginning of the conversation is the emphasis on the fact that innovative technologies to control aging will help to treat or prevent chronic diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s, stroke, diabetes, and heart disease.
People are ready to support the development of new medical technologies, even scary ones like gene therapies or gene editing, under the condition they are going to be used for treatment . However, their use for the prolongation of life belongs to the category of “human enhancement”, and as such the idea is most often rejected.
Take home points regarding how to make the idea of healthy longevity sound attractive to newcomers to motivate them to learn more:
Don’t use the words “life extension”, “immortality”, or even “longevity” in the beginning, as these notions will make people think of unattractive scenarios like extended periods of poor health or the questionable moral qualities of an immortal.
Begin the conversation with the explanation that new technologies to address aging are aimed at postponing the onset of age-related diseases and prolonging the period of health and youth.
It is highly recommended to add that these technologies will help treat or prevent serious chronic diseases, while extended lifespans will just be a possible nice side-effect.
The principle of systematization
Now let’s talk about another didactic principle. This is the principle of systematization, which means, the information must be divided into small units and these units are to be structured into an educational logic to ensure a systematic acquisition of information.
I’d like to remind you that most people simply do not know what biological aging is, and they believe that nothing can be done about it.
In turn, if people do not understand the causal relationship between the mechanisms of aging, damage accumulation, and the onset of age-related diseases, they simply do not believe that addressing the mechanisms of aging will lead to anything useful.
Here is an interesting illustration. There is a study by Brad Partridge and his colleagues published in Rejuvenation Research in 2009 which investigated different sorts of concerns relating to life extension . The study was conducted on the Australian public and there were 605 participants.
Despite the introduction text clearly stated that the goal of the scientists was to slow down aging and to extend the healthy period of life, about one third of the participants still named an extended unhealthy state as one of the biggest personal downsides of life extension!
The very existence of this concern means that in the beginning a lot of people don’t really understand how dealing with aging will affect their health, and how the course of their life will change (in terms of healthy years).
They tend to stick to common thinking until they are brought over by persuasive scientific data. Therefore, it is important to explain these basic things. We need to move from simple to more complex, and not vice versa, as some activists sadly often do.
The principle of accessibility and individuality
The principle of accessibility and individuality should also be taken into account. This principle implies that one must speak with people in a language they can understand. Of course, many of us believe that the use of special terms allows us to be more accurate in the scientific sense – or seem smarter.
But the problem is, if we are not understood at all, then the accuracy of the terms does not really matter. Inspired talks filled with unfamiliar jargon cause boredom, loss of interest, and result in insufficient funding in the field of aging research.
This principle also requires an individual approach. Remember that training involves the conscious and active participation of the student. Each person comes to us with their life baggage, with their special needs and fears, with their concerns related to greatly extended lifespans – and these concerns have to be addressed.
However, studies show that gerontologists themselves are not always ready to deal with this matter . This is understandable: they are specialists in their field, but they may not have sufficient knowledge to answer questions from other areas – for example, demography, economics, or ecology.
This makes the role of advocates very important and we should be prepared to learn as much as it takes to be able to deal with concerns, answer additional questions, including those in the field of philosophy or religion. This is not that difficult: there is a lot of quality reports on each field of social life to provide the answers. And after all, finding out how to counteract this or that concern is an exciting intellectual exercise.
As you can see, advocacy is a complicated story. It’s good that we have all this data from sociological studies, and that we can achieve our goals despite all these obstacles. We are talking about this today not to frighten you with the complexities of the advocate’s work, but rather to arm you with the knowledge to increase your chances of convincing the audience that aging research is really important and deserves their support.
The more effectively we can communicate, the sooner we can bring aging under reasonable medical control.
 Lang, F. R., Baltes, P. B., & Wagner, G. G. (2007). Desired lifetime and end-of-life desires across adulthood from 20 to 90: A dual-source information model. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 62(5), P268-P276.
 Lugo, L., Cooperman, A., & Funk, C. (2013). Living to 120 and Beyond: Americans’ Views on Aging, Medical Advances, and Radical Life Extension. Pew Research Center, August, 6. URL: https://www.pewforum.org/2013/08/06/living-to-120-and-beyond-americans-views-on-aging-medical-advances-and-radical-life-extension/
 CARP Radical Life Extension Poll Report (2013). URL: https://www.carp.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Life-Extension-Poll-Report.pdf
 Financial University of the Government of the Russian Federation, Sociology Faculty (2015). Most of Russians want to live up to 80 years only. (Bol’shinstvo rossijan hochet dozhit’ tol’ko do 80 let). URL: https://www.fa.ru/chair/priklsoc/Documents/24_Life_Expectancy_2015.pdf
 Underwood, M. (2014). What reassurances do the community need regarding life extension? Evidence from studies of community attitudes and an analysis of film portrayals. Rejuvenation research, 17(2), 105-115.
 Donner, Y., Fortney, K., Calimport, S. R., Pfleger, K., Shah, M., & Betts-LaCroix, J. (2015). Great desire for extended life and health amongst the American public. Frontiers in genetics, 6.
 Shepherd, R., Barnett, J., Cooper, H., Coyle, A., Moran-Ellis, J., Senior, V., & Walton, C. (2007). Towards an understanding of British public attitudes concerning human cloning. Social Science & Medicine, 65(2), 377-392.
 Partridge, B., Lucke, J., Bartlett, H., & Hall, W. (2009). Ethical, social, and personal implications of extended human lifespan identified by members of the public. Rejuvenation research, 12(5), 351-357.
 Settersten, R. A., Flatt, M. A., & Ponsaran, R. (2008). From the lab to the front line: How individual biogerontologists navigate their contested field. Journal of aging studies, 22(4), 304-312.