Anti-Aging is not Necessarily Anti-Death: Bioethics and the Front Lines of Practice

Abstract

Anti-aging medicine has emerged in the past two decades as both a medical practice and scientific objective largely aimed at intervening into the process of aging itself rather than its “associated” diseases. This has provoked a both excitement and concern in bioethical deliberations on the meaning and potential impact of an effective intervention. In this article, I examine the different ways in which bioethicists, other social scientists, and anti-aging proponents frame anti-aging goals, in particular, the construction of immortality as its implicit and explicit aim. This research is based upon over 9 years of anthropological, ethnographic interview- and observation-based research in the field and draws substantially from the US President’s Council on Bioethics’ deliberations on this topic as well as from interview data and other publications/discussion on anti-aging medicine. I argue that while the framework of life and death provide the primary structure for many bioethical and social science critiques of anti-aging medicine, many if not most anti-aging practitioners, researchers, and advocates employ the alternative structure of health and pain to orient their work. These divergent orientations of life/death and health/pain beget competing conversations around anti-aging medicine; including voices from the front lines of anti-aging practice complicate bioethical critiques and ultimately beg different questions. Positioning the painful, physiological decline of aging as the ultimate adversary rather than death challenges traditional models of biomedical intervention based on “nature” and “disease” constructions.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    This number is based solely upon the A4M directory and does not include numerous other practitioners who are not affiliated with the A4M. The A4M maintains the largest database of practitioners. However, these numbers are likely to be low as at least five of the twenty practitioners I interviewed were not registered on that site.

  2. 2.

    I employ pseudonyms when referring to practitioners and researchers with whom I spoke unless they explicitly consented to the use of their names.

    Interview: Dr. N on 16 October 2001.

  3. 3.

    Interview: Dr. Z on 27 February 2004.

  4. 4.

    Interview: Aubrey de Grey on 29 June 2008. I have spoken with Dr. de Grey on many occasions as he is a prolific author on anti-aging issues. I cite him here as an interview respondent and elsewhere as a reference source; the potential for confusion in situations like this is one of the difficulties the complicated nature of anthropological fieldwork with scientists.

  5. 5.

    “Age-retardation” is defined by the Council as the “slowing down of the biological processes involved in aging, resulting in delayed decline and degeneration and perhaps also a longer life. It is one possible route to life extension” (PCBE 2003a, 185).

  6. 6.

    Dr. Austad told me that, though he was asked, he declined to sign this piece because he did not agree with some of the statements and wording, particularly in the genetics subsection (Interview 11 November 2003, see also Olshansky’s statement to similar effect in PCBE 2003b).

  7. 7.

    Founded by Aubrey de Grey to award researchers for successful anti-aging interventions in mice. See website www.mprize.org.

  8. 8.

    Interview: Dr. M on 01 July 2002.

  9. 9.

    Interviews: Dr. O on 7 February 2002, Dr. S on 13 September 2001.

  10. 10.

    Interview: Dr. C on 24 October 2000.

  11. 11.

    Interview: Dr. Z on 08 August 2002.

  12. 12.

    Interview: Dr. S on 13 September 2001.

  13. 13.

    Interview: Dr. N on 16 October 2001.

  14. 14.

    Interview: Dr. R on 19 April 2002.

  15. 15.

    Interview: Dr. D on 18 October 2001.

  16. 16.

    Interview: Dr. E on 30 August 2002.

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Correspondence to Courtney Everts Mykytyn.

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Mykytyn, C.E. Anti-Aging is not Necessarily Anti-Death: Bioethics and the Front Lines of Practice. Medicine Studies 1, 209–228 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12376-009-0026-4

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Keywords

  • Anti-aging medicine
  • Death
  • Immortality
  • Health
  • Pain
  • President’s Council on Bioethics