Should Scientists Attempt to Control Aging

The fundamental philosophical and cultural challenge of anti-aging research is the blow that it could deal to aging's historical role as a constant in human affairs. If it is not necessary to assume the universality of aging in the ordering of society, new choices present themselves. From the point of view of the public good, is aging, as it is now known, a human experience to be encouraged or discouraged? Both biomedicine and American culture reinforce the inclination to interpret the biological changes that accompany human aging as losses that harm those who experience them (Cole and Gadow). Society in general and health professionals in particular have a fundamental obligation to do what they can to protect people from the harms to which they are vulnerable, whether those harms originate with terrorists, epidemic disease, the accumulated insults of the environment, or genes. Though not everyone would choose to avoid the "harms" of aging, should those who wish to use these interventions be discouraged from doing so?

It is clear that there is a powerful psychological dynamic at work behind the bioethical debates over anti-aging research. Against the mythic power of rejuvenation, almost any form of social and personal risks involved in pursing the mastery of aging fade away. This is because it has so often been rejuvenation—in the forms of resurrection, reincarnation, renewal, or rebirth—that defeat deterioration and death in human belief systems (Gruman).

Critics of anti-aging medicine suggest that cultural and medical assumptions about the biological changes of late adulthood might be different if society were not so pervasively influenced by the perspective of those who have not yet undergone them (Callahan, 1993). Perhaps, when seen from the other side, not all the changes that young adults view as the harmful losses of aging are harms at all. One familiar example of this is menopause—this loss of reproductive capacity, though fraught with physical and emotional turbulence, is one that many women come to celebrate as opening new opportunities and life pleasures (Martin; Logothetis). Similarly, in many societies the loss of physical strength and endurance that comes with aging allows the individual to relinquish responsibility for the labor of survival and move into an even more important role as an elder for his or her community (Moody, 1986).

Traditionally, even the health challenges of aging (e.g., failing senses, vulnerability to disease and accident) have been seen as contributing to the life experiences of older adults in a way that gives them a level of equanimity and insight difficult to achieve at earlier stages in life (Post). The psychologist Erik Erikson has looked to old age as a crucial source of generativity in the human life cycle, and the philosophers Daniel Callahan and Leon Kass have argued that growing old provides special opportunities for teaching, wisdom, and altruism. This does not mean that the major diseases that threaten human health in late adulthood are not a cause of concern, but it does suggest that attempting to intervene in the aging process itself, for all its attendant complaints, may be shortsighted and harmful because it would deny adults the wider benefits of growing old.

On the other hand, advocates of anti-aging medicine claim that, at best, this argument leads to the position that it would be wrong to deny people the right to "grow old gracefully" if they value the benefits of doing so (Stock). The physical burdens that accompany aging can be very serious, and modern society is not designed to optimize the role of the elderly. Given the social realities of aging in modern Western culture, many adults would consider the price of the late stages of human development high enough to warrant attempts to postpone and compress them as much as possible. Advocates of anti-aging research point out that respecting that human ability to project and pursue a life plan is at the heart of what it means to respect self-determination and personal autonomy.

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