Life extensionism is a global movement with long-term traditions. The idea that aging is similar to a disease, and should be treated as such, was first suggested in the early 1900s by Elie Metchnikoff, the Nobel Laureate in Physiology/Medicine of 1908, for the discovery of phagocytosis, a vice director of the Pasteur Institute (Paris).
Since then, studies of the biology of aging have revealed the underlying processes of aging, such as DNA damage, toxic protein aggregation and cross-links, cellular senescence, nutrient sensing deregulation, and other processes. It has proven the plausibility of addressing these processes to modify the dynamics of aging.
Aging is the root cause of age-related diseases
Even though aging itself is not described as a disease in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD), there is no doubt that aging is the major cause of many severe diseases and that the global population could benefit from bringing aging under medical control. Many existing drugs have been found to be geroprotective (protecting the body against the aging processes).
However, the effects of geroprotective technologies on humans remain a subject of numerous misconceptions.
Please take a look at this picture by the Buck Institute for Research on Aging – one of the biggest aging research centers located in the United States.
The upper line represents human lives as they were before the development of modern medicine. In their 50s, people started to develop different age-related diseases, then they died from them some 15-20 years later.
The second line (red one) is how things are now. People reach their 50s and age-related diseases start to manifest, but modern medicine allows us to slow down their progression so that people live longer – but this is the period of illness that is extended.
Sickcare not healthcare
This is exactly why Brian Kennedy from the Buck Institute calls our healthcare system a “sickcare” system: we are keeping people alive for longer, but we are keeping them sick.
This is why the “silver tsunami” represents such a burden on our system of healthcare and social support: we have many people living longer while still being disabled. This situation is going to get worse in the coming decades, as the number of people who are at least 60 years old is going to reach 30% of the global population by 2100. If we keep things as they are and don’t move towards preventive medicine, there are going to be a lot of people who suffer from serious disabilities.
Preventing age-related diseases by targeting the aging processes
The third line is what scientists are trying to achieve by developing interventions to address the aging processes. These interventions are meant to be applied in middle age, before the manifestation of age-related diseases, in order to extend the healthy period of life, or healthspan, while the period of illness is postponed and will remain relatively short. This could allow people in their 50s to look like they are 30; in their 70s, they could also look younger, be stronger, and feel as good as they did in their 50s.
The onset of severe age-related diseases, such as cancer, osteoarthritis, dementias, stroke and type 2 diabetes, could be postponed to the late 90s. Life extension in this scenario would result in better health throughout life, allowing people to remain active and able to contribute to the economy – which could ease the burden on healthcare and social services. We believe that this is a goal worth fighting for.
The fourth scenario is what we strive for in the future: healthspan might be extended even more while the period of disability could be made shorter. This is what scientists call “compressed morbidity”. For how much longer people would live in this last scenario is an open question. It depends on technological advances. They might look like they are 50 years old in their 90s and find themselves windsurfing together with their great-grand children.
What we mean by life extension is actually the extension of the healthy and productive period of life that is free of disease and disability. In such an “extended” society, the majority of people could enjoy their lives for much longer and actively contribute to the development of the economy regardless of their chronological ages.