Miércoles 29 de Noviembre de 2006, Ip nº 181

Biotechnology will solve the challenges of an aging population
Por Aubrey de Grey

You can't turn on the radio these days without hearing something about the horrors that await us as a result of the "aging population". The upheavals and traumas predicted to occur are on the same scale as those resulting from global warming. Yet, we so far lack a coherent plan for what to do about this problem. This is rather different than the situation with global warming, where we have a fine plan but lack the collective will to implement it.

But what is actually the problem? There's ultimately only one: old people are not very well, compared to young adults. If people didn't decline in physical and mental ability in old age, we wouldn't have to spend immense sums on their health care, and moreover they would still be in the workforce, contributing wealth to society rather than consuming it.

"Er, but the elderly do decline, so why mention it?" you may be saying. Well, my work is focused on eradicating the functional decline of aging, and on the basis of a great deal of detailed scientific analysis and discussion with world-leading experts in the relevant areas I've concluded that my preferred approach to achieving this has at least a 50/50 chance of success within a few decades.

Don't believe me? Well, why do you think your snap judgement is more reliable than my conclusion from a decade of dedicated research?

I'll tell you why you think that: it's because you're in the pro-aging trance.

At root, we all know aging is really horrible, whether for us or for our loved ones, but we have also grown up in the rather firm knowledge that it is immutable. And when one is faced with a fate that is both horrible and immutable, it makes abundant sense to find some way -- any way, however illogical -- to put it out of one's mind and make the best of what time one has left, rather than spend that time preoccupied with something one cannot affect.

Reservations about curing aging are many and varied, of course - the "Tithonus error" that extended life means extended frailty, concerns about overpopulation, inequality of access, boredom and immortal dictators are some of the commonest - and they all have a germ of truth, but the most rudimentary sense of proportion shows that they can never outweigh the saving of 100,000 lives every day, which is what aging kills.

I don't have space here to explain my proposal - check www.sens.org for details - but I can tell you what others without any axe to grind think. Luckily, as currently the most prominent proposer of a real cure for aging, I've recently been able to make my more strident detractors' information-free pessimism look pretty silly. In cooperation with interested journalists, I arranged for an eminent panel of unassailably neutral experts to evaluate my ideas - not whether they would work, since that can only be discovered by trying them, but whether they had enough chance of working to be worth discussing and developing. Some of my mainstream critics submitted an attempt to show that my proposals are too crazy to discuss, and both it and two other submissions from biologists who knew my work less well were unceremoniously and unanimously thrown out.

Radical ideas that mainstream scientists ridicule are usually wrong. But on occasion, they're right -- and if those with no axe to grind determine that an idea is not necessarily wrong, it's got a very good chance. Maybe we'll find that biotechnology can't solve the "aging population" problem, but the chance that we can solve it that way is easily high enough that we should be doing our very best to try.

  20/11/2006. The Guardian.


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