Why we need to get serious about ending aging
It is widely acknowledged that even a small advance in anti-aging science could yield benefits in terms of healthy years that the traditional paradigm of targeting specific diseases is not likely to produce. A more youthful population would also be less vulnerable to epidemics. Approximately 93 percent of all COVID-19 deaths reported in the U.S. occurred among those aged 50 or older. The potential economic benefits would be tremendous. A more youthful population would consume less medical resources and be able to work longer. A recent study published in Nature estimates that a slowdown in aging that increases life expectancy by one year would save $38 trillion per year for the U.S. alone.
A societal effort to understand, slow down, arrest or even reverse aging of at least the size of our response to COVID-19 would therefore be a rational commitment. In fact, given that America’s older population is projected to grow dramatically, and the cost of healthcare with it, it is not an overstatement to say that the future welfare of the country may depend on solving aging.
This year, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia has announced that it will spend up to 1 billion dollars per year on science with the potential to slow down the aging process. We have also seen important investments from billionaires like Google co-founder Larry Page, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, business magnate Larry Ellison, and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.
The U.S. government, however, is lagging: The National Institutes of Health spent less than one percent of its $43 billion budget for the fiscal year of 2021 on the National Institute on Aging’s Division of Aging Biology. When you visit the division’s webpage you find that their mission statement carefully omits any mention of the possibility of slowing down the aging process.
There is a lack of political will and leadership on the issue, and the idea that we should seek to do something about aging is generally met with a great deal of suspicion and trepidation. In a large representative study conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2013, only 38% of the respondents said that they would want a treatment that could slow the aging process and allow them to live at least 120 years. Apparently, most people prefer, or at least do not mind, to age and die within a natural lifespan. This result has been confirmed by smaller studies and it is, I think, surprising. Are we not supposed to live in a youth-culture? Are people not supposed to want to stay young and alive forever? Is self-preservation not the strong drive we have always assumed it to be?
We are inundated and saturated with an ideology of death-acceptance.
In my book, The Case against Death, I suggest that we have been culturally conditioned to think that it is virtuous to accept aging and death. We are taught to believe that although aging and death seem gruesome, they are what is best for us, all things considered. This is what we are supposed to think, and the majority accept it. I call this the Wise View because death acceptance has been the dominant view of philosophers since the beginning. Socrates compared our earthly life to an illness and a prison and described death as a healer and a liberator. The Buddha taught that life is suffering and that the way to escape suffering is to end the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. Stoic philosophers from Zeno to Marcus Aurelius believed that everything that happens in accordance with nature is good, and that therefore we should not only accept death but welcome it as an aspect of a perfect totality.
Epicureans agreed with these rival schools and famously argued that death cannot harm us because where we are, death is not, and where death is we are not. We cannot be harmed if we are not, so death is harmless. The simple view that death actually can harm us greatly is one of the least philosophical views one can hold.
In The Case Against Death, philosopher Ingemar Patrick Linden argues that we frown on using science to prolong healthy life only because we're culturally conditioned to think that way.
Many of the stories we tell promote the Wise View. One of the earliest known pieces of literature, the Epic of Gilgamesh, follows Gilgamesh on a quest for eternal life ending with the wisdom that death is the destiny of man. Today we learn about the tedium of immortality from the children’s book Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt, and we are warned about the vice of wanting to resist death in other books and films such as J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter, where Voldemort must kill Harry as a step towards his own immortality; C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia where the White Witch has gained immortal youth and madness in equal measures; J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy where the ring extends the wearer’s life but can also destroy them, as exemplified by the creep Gollum; and Doctor Strange where life extension is the one magical power that is taboo. In Star Wars, Yoda, a stereotype of the sage, teaches us the wisdom handed down by philosophers and prophets: “Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not.”
We are inundated and saturated with an ideology of death-acceptance. Can the dear reader name one single story where the hero is pursuing anti-aging, longevity or immortality and the villain tries to stop her?
The Wise View resonates with us partly because we think that there is nothing we can do about aging and death, so we do not want to wish for what we cannot have. Youth and immortality are sour grapes to us. Believing that death is, all things considered, not such a bad thing, protects us from experiencing our aging and approaching death as a gruesome tragedy. This need to escape the thought that we are heading towards a personal catastrophe explains why many are so quick to accept arguments against radical life extension, despite their often glaring weaknesses.
One of the most common objections to radical life extension is that aging and death are natural. The problem with this argument is that many things that are natural are very bad, such as cancer, and other things that are not natural are very good, such as a cure for cancer. Why are we so sure that cancer is bad? Because we assume that it is bad to die. Indeed, nothing is more natural than wanting to live. We seem to need philosophers and story tellers to talk us out of it and, in the words of a distinguished bioethicist, “instruct and somewhat moderate our lust for life.”
Another standard objection is that we need a deadline, and that without death we could postpone every action forever. “Death brings urgency and seriousness to life,” say proponents of this view, but there are several problems with this argument. Even if our lives were endless, there would still be many things we would have to do at a certain time, and that could not be redone, for example, saving our planet from being destroyed, or becoming the first person on Venus. And if we prefer pleasant endless lives over unpleasant endless ones, we will have to exercise, eat right, keep our word, develop our talents, show up for time at work, pay our taxes by the due date, remember birthdays, and so on.
The Wise View provides us with a feel-good bromide for the anxiety created by the foreknowledge of our decay and death by telling us that these are not evils, but blessings in disguise. Once perhaps an innocuous delusion, today the view stands in the way of a necessary societal commitment to research that can prolong our healthy life.
Besides, even if we succeeded in ending aging, we would still die from other causes. Given the rate of accidental deaths we would be fortunate to live to age 2000 all things equal. So even if, contrary to what I have argued, we do need a deadline, we can still argue that the natural lifespan that we now labor under is inhuman and that it forces each human to limit her ambitions and to become only a fragment of all that she that could have been. Our tight time constraint imposes tragic choices and inflated opportunity costs. Death does not make life matter; it makes time matter.
The perhaps most awful argument against radical life extension is grounded in a pessimism that holds life in such little regard that it says that best of all is never to have born. This view was expressed by Ecclesiastes in the Hebrew Bible, by Sophocles and several other ancient Greeks, by the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, and recently by, among others, the South African philosopher David Benatar who argues that it is wrong to bring children into the world and that we should euthanize all sentient life. Pessimism, one suspects, largely appeals to some for reasons having to do with personal temperament, but insofar as it is built on factual beliefs, they can be addressed by providing a less negatively biased understanding of the world, by pointing out that curing aging would decrease the badness that they are so hypersensitive to, and by reminding them that if life really becomes unbearable, they are free to quit at any time. Other means of persuasion could include recommending sleep, exercise and taking long brisk walks in nature.
The Wise View provides us with a feel-good bromide for the anxiety created by the foreknowledge of our decay and death by telling us that these are not evils, but blessings in disguise. Once perhaps an innocuous delusion, today the view stands in the way of a necessary societal commitment to research that can prolong our healthy life. We need abandon it and openly admit that aging is a scourge that deserves to be fought with the combined energies equaling those expended on fighting COVID-19, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, stroke and all the other illnesses for which aging is the greatest risk factor. The fight to end aging transcends ordinary political boundaries and is therefore the kind of grand unifying enterprise that could re-energize a society suffering from divisiveness and the sense of a lack of a common purpose. It is hard to imagine a more worthwhile cause.
Today’s podcast guest is Rosalind Picard, a researcher, inventor named on over 100 patents, entrepreneur, author, professor and engineer. When it comes to the science related to endowing computer software with emotional intelligence, she wrote the book. It’s published by MIT Press and called Affective Computing.
Dr. Picard is founder and director of the MIT Media Lab’s Affective Computing Research Group. Her research and engineering contributions have been recognized internationally. For example, she received the 2022 International Lombardy Prize for Computer Science Research, considered by many to be the Nobel prize in computer science.
Through her research and companies, Dr. Picard has developed wearable sensors, algorithms and systems for sensing, recognizing and responding to information about human emotion. Her products are focused on using fitness trackers to advance clinical quality treatments for a range of conditions.
Meanwhile, in just the past few years, numerous fitness tracking companies have released products with their own stress sensors and systems. You may have heard about Fitbit’s Stress Management Score, or Whoop’s Stress Monitor – these features and apps measure things like your heart rhythm and a certain type of invisible sweat to identify stress. They’re designed to raise awareness about forms of stress such as anxieties and anger, and suggest strategies like meditation to relax in real time when stress occurs.
But how well do these off-the-shelf gadgets work? There’s no one more knowledgeable and experienced than Rosalind Picard to explain the science behind these stress features, what they do exactly, how they might be able to help us, and their current shortcomings.
Dr. Picard is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, and a popular speaker who’s given over a hundred invited keynote talks and a TED talk with over 2 million views. She holds a Bachelors in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Tech, and Masters and Doctorate degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts with her husband, where they’ve raised three sons.
In our conversation, we discuss stress scores on fitness trackers to improve well-being. She describes the difference between commercial products that might help people become more mindful of their health and products that are FDA approved and really capable of advancing the science. We also talk about several fascinating findings and concepts discovered in Dr. Picard’s lab including the multiple arousal theory, a phenomenon you’ll want to hear about. And we explore the complexity of stress, one reason it’s so tough to measure. For example, many forms of stress are actually good for us. Can fitness trackers tell the difference between stress that’s healthy and unhealthy?
- Dr. Picard’s book, Affective Computing
- Dr. Picard’s bio
- Dr. Picard on Twitter
- Dr. Picard’s company, Empatica - https://www.empatica.com/ - The FDA-cleared Empatica Health Monitoring Platform provides accurate, continuous health insights for researchers and clinicians, collected in the real world
- Empatica Twitter
- Dr. Picard and her team have published hundreds of peer-reviewed articles across AI, Machine Learning, Affective Computing, Digital Health, and Human-computer interaction.
- Dr. Picard’s TED talk
If you look back on the last century of scientific achievements, you might notice that most of the scientists we celebrate are overwhelmingly white, while scientists of color take a backseat. Since the Nobel Prize was introduced in 1901, for example, no black scientists have landed this prestigious award.
The work of black women scientists has gone unrecognized in particular. Their work uncredited and often stolen, black women have nevertheless contributed to some of the most important advancements of the last 100 years, from the polio vaccine to GPS.
Here are five black women who have changed science forever.
Dr. May Edward Chinn
Dr. May Edward Chinn practicing medicine in Harlem
George B. Davis, PhD.
Chinn was born to poor parents in New York City just before the start of the 20th century. Although she showed great promise as a pianist, playing with the legendary musician Paul Robeson throughout the 1920s, she decided to study medicine instead. Chinn, like other black doctors of the time, were barred from studying or practicing in New York hospitals. So Chinn formed a private practice and made house calls, sometimes operating in patients’ living rooms, using an ironing board as a makeshift operating table.
Chinn worked among the city’s poor, and in doing this, started to notice her patients had late-stage cancers that often had gone undetected or untreated for years. To learn more about cancer and its prevention, Chinn begged information off white doctors who were willing to share with her, and even accompanied her patients to other clinic appointments in the city, claiming to be the family physician. Chinn took this information and integrated it into her own practice, creating guidelines for early cancer detection that were revolutionary at the time—for instance, checking patient health histories, checking family histories, performing routine pap smears, and screening patients for cancer even before they showed symptoms. For years, Chinn was the only black female doctor working in Harlem, and she continued to work closely with the poor and advocate for early cancer screenings until she retired at age 81.
Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy
Alice Ball was a chemist best known for her groundbreaking work on the development of the “Ball Method,” the first successful treatment for those suffering from leprosy during the early 20th century.
In 1916, while she was an undergraduate student at the University of Hawaii, Ball studied the effects of Chaulmoogra oil in treating leprosy. This oil was a well-established therapy in Asian countries, but it had such a foul taste and led to such unpleasant side effects that many patients refused to take it.
So Ball developed a method to isolate and extract the active compounds from Chaulmoogra oil to create an injectable medicine. This marked a significant breakthrough in leprosy treatment and became the standard of care for several decades afterward.
Unfortunately, Ball died before she could publish her results, and credit for this discovery was given to another scientist. One of her colleagues, however, was able to properly credit her in a publication in 1922.
onathan Newton/The Washington Post/Getty
The person who arguably contributed the most to scientific research in the last century, surprisingly, wasn’t even a scientist. Henrietta Lacks was a tobacco farmer and mother of five children who lived in Maryland during the 1940s. In 1951, Lacks visited Johns Hopkins Hospital where doctors found a cancerous tumor on her cervix. Before treating the tumor, the doctor who examined Lacks clipped two small samples of tissue from Lacks’ cervix without her knowledge or consent—something unthinkable today thanks to informed consent practices, but commonplace back then.
As Lacks underwent treatment for her cancer, her tissue samples made their way to the desk of George Otto Gey, a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins. He noticed that unlike the other cell cultures that came into his lab, Lacks’ cells grew and multiplied instead of dying out. Lacks’ cells were “immortal,” meaning that because of a genetic defect, they were able to reproduce indefinitely as long as certain conditions were kept stable inside the lab.
Gey started shipping Lacks’ cells to other researchers across the globe, and scientists were thrilled to have an unlimited amount of sturdy human cells with which to experiment. Long after Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, her cells continued to multiply and scientists continued to use them to develop cancer treatments, to learn more about HIV/AIDS, to pioneer fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization, and to develop the polio vaccine. To this day, Lacks’ cells have saved an estimated 10 million lives, and her family is beginning to get the compensation and recognition that Henrietta deserved.
Dr. Gladys West
Gladys West was a mathematician who helped invent something nearly everyone uses today. West started her career in the 1950s at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Virginia, and took data from satellites to create a mathematical model of the Earth’s shape and gravitational field. This important work would lay the groundwork for the technology that would later become the Global Positioning System, or GPS. West’s work was not widely recognized until she was honored by the US Air Force in 2018.
Dr. Kizzmekia "Kizzy" Corbett
At just 35 years old, immunologist Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett has already made history. A viral immunologist by training, Corbett studied coronaviruses at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and researched possible vaccines for coronaviruses such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).At the start of the COVID pandemic, Corbett and her team at the NIH partnered with pharmaceutical giant Moderna to develop an mRNA-based vaccine against the virus. Corbett’s previous work with mRNA and coronaviruses was vital in developing the vaccine, which became one of the first to be authorized for emergency use in the United States. The vaccine, along with others, is responsible for saving an estimated 14 million lives.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.