July 08, 2004
Is Aging A Medical Condition?

A UC Irvine scientist claims aging is not a medical condition.

James McGaugh, director of the Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory at the University of California-Irvine, bristles at the notion of people with normal brains taking medication to boost their brainpower. After all, he says, no one regards the slowing down of the body with age as a medical condition.

I disagree! So do many others. Aging is a medical condition because an aged body does not function properly. A body that does not function properly has a disease. A disease is a medical condition.

(Related story: 'Smart pills' make headway)

"Does Michael Jordan have age-related physical impairment?" McGaugh asks.

Yes, of course he does. Jordan's problem with his knees is obviously age-related. His general slowing down and less endurance are age-related. It is not a coincidence that as the years passed and his body aged he became impaired as compared to what he used to be able to do.

Just as Jordan may not be as agile on the basketball court as he used to be, McGaugh says, there's strong evidence that memory processing slows with age.

Yes, our brains age. The aging of our brains is a medical condition. Consider this recent report on gene expression, brain aging, and damaged genes.

To investigate age-associated molecular changes in the human brain, Dr. Bruce A. Yankner, professor in the Department of Neurology and Division of Neuroscience at Children's Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School, and colleagues examined patterns of gene expression in postmortem samples collected from thirty individuals ranging in age from 26 to 106 years. Using a sophisticated screening technique called transcriptional profiling that evaluates thousands of genes at a time, the researchers identified two groups of genes with significantly altered expression levels in the brains of older individuals. A gene's expression level is an indicator of whether or not the gene is functioning properly.

"We found that genes that play a role in learning and memory were among those most significantly reduced in the aging human cortex," said Yankner. "These include genes that are required for communication between neurons."

In addition to a reduction in genes important for cognitive function, there was an elevated expression of genes that are associated with stress and repair mechanisms and genes linked to inflammation and immune responses. This is evidence that pathological events may be occurring in the aging brain, possibly related to gene damage.

The researchers then went on to show that many of the genes with altered expression in the brain were badly damaged and could not function properly. They showed that these genes also could be selectively damaged in brain cells grown in the laboratory, thereby mimicking some of the changes of the aging brain.

Is gene damage a medical condition? More generally, is brain damage a medical condition? Yes, of course. If you have something in your body that is damaged then you have a medical condition.

I am amazed to see scientists promoting a naturalistic fallacy that if some process is natural it must be normal and must not be treated. Imagine making that argument about, say, a troubled pregnancy: "Sorry maam, we can't intervene to save you or your baby from preeclampsia because in our view your illness is a natural result of an interaction between your genes and your environment." Or imagine saying this about a bacterial infection: "We can't give your daughter an antibiotic to kill the Group A streptococcal infections that is causing scarlet fever because infections are natural and have been happening for all of human history. So she'll just have to die since there is no medical condition here." You'd be thought either crazy or incredibly unethical if you said such things. But today too many scientists, doctors, and members of the public at large think of aging as an inevitability to be embraced as part of the natural order. Well, aging is not inevitable. It is one big medical condition that we need to cure. Aging reversal will some day become possible and we ought to be trying much harder to make that day come as soon as possible.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2004 July 08 10:55 AM  Aging Debate

Brock said at July 9, 2004 10:02 AM:

Randall, I inject myself with sea anenome neurotoxins on a regular basis. After all, they're a natural supplement. Not GMO at all. Doesn't everybody?

Sorry, idiotology overload.

Anyway, here's another nail in the coffin of genetic privacy:


DNA, 15 minutes, on site. You know the drill.

CRS said at July 9, 2004 8:33 PM:

Anti-aging: The Tower of Babel redux. We spend trillions on trying to reach God by building towers to Heaven. Immortality by medicine is a farce. Worse than that it is impious in the extreme. Of course it means more abortion; more grinding of the faces of the poor in their poverty. Death is essential as birth. It must not come by man's own hand but non-economic measures to defeat it (and admit it they are all non-economic) are just as evil as euthanasia, suicide, abortion and other measures to end it.

CRS said at July 9, 2004 9:20 PM:

I meant ALMOST all non-economic. Yes, antibiotics, heart surgery, etc. are either are or close to economic fopr many to most people. $500k of government medicare at age 80 to fight cancer is ridiculous.

Aubrey de Grey said at July 10, 2004 3:56 AM:

CRS, you evidently haven't grasped what indefinite healthy life extension means economically. More than half of the health care costs in the industrialised world are spent on those in their last year of life -- the extreme costs of fighting cancer in the frail elderly, that you mention, are just one example. But the idea of indefinite healthy life extension is to **eliminate** all that expenditure by ensuring that no one reaches that degree of frailty in the first place. When we add to this the savings in retirement benefits and the wealth contributed **to** society by elderly who are still as vigorous (both physically and mentally) as in their youth, which is what will result (retirement will become a periodic rather than permanent thing), the wealth freed up by curing aging is seen to be even more staggering. Far from being prohibitively expensive and available only to the few, true rejuvenation therapies will be made universally available within only a few years after they are first developed -- even though this will entail an astronomical degree of front-loaded investment by governments -- because it will pay for itself extremely quickly by the above means. And also because it'll be saving lives, and people will have woken up by then to the realisation that the value of life is not rightfully dependent on how much one has already lived -- but I digress. See mysite and publications for more.

CRS said at July 10, 2004 5:21 AM:

The cost of the rejuvenation therapy may be nothing but who will want to work at the kinds of jobs we have now for 150 years? Who will treat the depression? Who will want more children? Will their be any room for more children? Therapy cost may be cheap but social adjustment will be devastating.
Metaphorically or not this is partaking of the Tree of Life and living forever in one's sins.

Brock said at July 10, 2004 2:15 PM:

Aubrey, nice try, but don't bother. A little research shows that CRS here is a contributor to a faith-based journal. He's from the Houston area, and even though he's good with numbers his understanding of economics is very weak. Probably because he graduated magna cum laude with a degree in accounting that makes him think that he understands socio-economic trends. From what I've read, he really doesn't. I wouldn't worry about his pissy little complaints.

Fly said at July 10, 2004 4:25 PM:


You won’t convince CRS but you may convince the many intelligent people who visit FuturePundit and read topics on life extension. By addressing the issues respectfully, providing a few good answers, and linking to his site, Aubrey de Grey is helping to make life extension a reality.

I believe it’s valuable to point out CRS’s possible agenda. Doing that without also addressing the issues might strike a neutral reader as an ad hominen attack.

I know it can be tiresome to hear the same old arguments against life extension again and again. However more people are discovering that life extension may be feasible. To them this is a new topic. This thread might be their first introduction to the social economics of life extension. (Or maybe no one is reading. It doesn’t matter because the arguing style we practice on this thread is the one we’ll use when there is a wider audience.)

(I’ve wondered how a person could efficiently address this issue. Perhaps keep a database of the most common questions and responses. Cut and paste with a little custom editing. You’d have to keep your answers short and concise and relevant to the issue so as not to annoy your audience. Nobody likes canned responses.)

Anyway, kudos to Aubrey de Grey for fighting the good fight.

T.J.Green said at July 10, 2004 5:39 PM:

Our species has been left confused and damaged by evolution.Our species must be repaired before we switch off the aging process.

Kurt said at July 10, 2004 6:21 PM:

What is it about certain christians and their opposition to "emortality"? I don't understand this attitude such as expressed by CRS.

Although I am not christian, I have many christian friends who have no problem with a cure for aging and unlimited healthy life-spans. I see no reason why being a christian should automatically equate to being apposed to a cure for aging. Also, "christian" arguments against immortality, by definition, do not apply to those of us who are not christian. Similarly, the issue of having kids only applies to those who choose to have kids. By definition, such arguments do not apply to those who choose not to have kids.

Immortality is really a libertarian issue because it is about freedom.

If you want to go to Singapore and spend 5 years establishing a software company, you can. If you want to go hang out in Bali or Boracay for months at a time, you can. If you are 40 year old semiconductor process engineer and have recently be "downsized" (don't you love these euphenisms) and you want to go back to school or not go back to school, in order to have a new career in biotechnology or nanotechnology, you can.

I think the lack of comprehension on the part of people like CRS is that they have never lived the "open" life and, therefor, lack the immagination to understand how immortality will allow one to live the "open" life, forever. Probably he has never been an expat in Tokyo, Japan and had one of those "blade-runner" experiences in Shinjuku on a spring early evening. He has never seen the Bali dances or played billards with the "butterflies of the night" in Cebu. He has never watched the sun rise from a 20,000 foot peak in central Mexico, or have seen endless schools of tuna at 30 meters underwater off of Boracay.

These people don't "get it". Immortality is about freedom to always go to new places, have new experiences, and to always have an open-ended future of unlimted potential in front of you.

I think the problem with the opponents of immortality that they simply lack immagination.

Lord Acton said at July 10, 2004 9:15 PM:


You believe that the return on investment for life extension research is very high. Why must "governments" provide this investment? Well-founded ROI arguments are best promulgated and acted upon in the private realm. Government investment only muddies the calucalation by relying on political arguments. Positions on both the "sustainable growth" left and the socially conservative right are already dug in against you. By relying on government funding, you now rally the libertarian contingent against you. Perhaps politics isn't your strong suit. Develop a pitch and go to Sand Hill Road, where the venture capitalists will listen to you.


I agree with Fly: Lighten up on the pissy ad hominem attacks. A little research shows that Brock "Brownie" Cusick attended Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ, and should understand the value of humility. Surely an Eagle Scout isn't taught to belittle others on the basis of their faith.

Brock said at July 10, 2004 11:01 PM:

Lord Action, as well as any others,

I'm sorry if that came across as too strong. I shouldn't have used the word 'pissy' at the very least.

However, it wasn't CRS's faith which bothered me. I know many people with 'faith' whom I respect very much. What bothered me was his argument and his style. I have met others like CRS who have decided that their religion (whether Christianity, socialism, Rep/Dem/Green politics or their own invention) is the right one. They cease to actually argue with people and simply spout off into the wind. Aubrey made a respectful reply, and tried to address CRS's points. I lacked Fly's perspective and thought only of CRS. I was pretty sure that anything Aubrey said would simply sail over his head. I forgot about the others who silently watch. I'm sorry.

Fly - Thanks for the perspective.

Aubrey de Grey said at July 11, 2004 4:58 AM:

Kurt wrote:

> What is it about certain christians and their opposition to
> "emortality"?

I am currently engaged in a fascinating thread here:


with an American Catholic based in Italy who is better than almost
any Christian I have ever encountered at articulating these things.
The result is that we are quite efficiently teasing out just what
he (and, if he is representative, typical Catholics) finds most
problematic about curing aging. At present the focus of the
discussion is on the consequently increased pressure/temptation
to use birth control. I encourage people to peruse the thread (and
its precursor, which began a little acrimoniously but became very
friendly very quickly).

Lord Acton wrote:

> Why must "governments" provide this investment?

I was probably over-concise. I have no problem with the involvement
of the private sector in this effort. All I meant was that it will
be impossible to get elected except on a platform to fight the war
on aging (including not only developing rejuvenation therapies but
also distributing them) as vigorously as possible, so that the state
WILL be doing all it can, whether or not the private sector is too.
Also, we must not ignore that the state still has more resources at
its disposal -- including raising taxes, which it will have been elected
on a manifesto commitment to do, specifically to wage the war on
aging. Your comments appear to refer to a much earlier stage in the
process, when the project is still at the research stage and the public
remain unconvinced; at that stage I think you are right that the private
sector (not forgetting outright philanthropy) will do much more than
the state. Politics is indeed not my strong suit, but the above isn't a
political statement, only a statement of the obvious in the context
of a worldwide awakening to the fact that aging is not a terribly
good thing. Returning to the nearer term, if you feel you can influence
venture capitalists to invest in this work, I urge you to get on and do
so -- I am always happy to help.

CRS said at July 11, 2004 5:17 PM:

Brock, You are absolutely right. I and others like me are stupid. We shouldn't be allowed to join in debates with intellects such as yours. When you find the pill for immortality you should make sure that stupid people like me don't ever get their hands on it. We are not worthy of immortality with such exalted intellects as yours.

Please excuse my temerity, my stupidity, my crudity etc. ad infinitum......

Kurt said at July 12, 2004 8:52 PM:


I have had corespondence with the same American catholic in Italy. I agree that he is far more articulate than any other "christian" I have encountered on the issue of curing aging. It does seem to center around the issue of birth-control and having kids, which is part of the reason why he doesn't take too well to my idea of entrepreneurship and partying it up in Southeast Asia for the next 500 years.

The American conservative christians that I have encountered are very family oriented. Perhaps they do not care for emortality because such ageless people will opt not to have families and live like "young adults" forever. They seem to be troubled by this idea. What they need to realize is that the people who believe as they will continue to live the conventional life-cycle. Its not like emortality is going to be mandatory by law. The reality is that there will be parallel populations of the emortal and the "conventionals". In the U.S., the dynamics of this will probably be similar to the much-ballyhooed "red/blue" divide between democrat and republican states. Perhaps the two major parties will realign themselves along emortal/conventional life-cycle lines.

It should be noted that Italy now has one of the lowest birthrates in the world. Perhaps this is why our American expat in Italy is troubled.

I also agree that the problem with CRS is not his faith but, rather, the notion that his faith is applicable to everyone else, whether they want it or not. As long as the emortality treatments are not made mandatory, why should he abject to other people choosing it on the basis of personal free-will?

BTW, I prefer the term emortality or agelessness to immortality. Immortality means that you will never die. Emortality or agelessness just means that you remain indefinitely young. You can still die in a plane crash or by suicide. Unless someone can come up with a better word for it, I will continue to use emortality.

Zack Lynch said at July 13, 2004 4:12 PM:

Now that is a very interesting way to make a point...

toot said at July 14, 2004 10:19 PM:

I assume that as part of your program for coexistence of the would be Ponce de Leons with us unimaginative breeders, that you advocate a Constitutional amendment assuring the right to breed. Otherwise, we will remain a bit skeptical, as even with our underdeveloped imaginations, we see what would be coming as soon as the Ponce de Leons begin to feel a bit crowded.

Fly said at July 15, 2004 4:55 PM:

Toot, guaranteeing breeding rights is an interesting question.

You don’t have to wait for the emortals for this political conflict. Is there a natural right to reproduce? If there is such a right, can society put limits on that right? (China’s one child policy.)

Many people believe the Earth is already over populated. (I’m not one of them as I see people as a valuable resource.) Some people encourage their fellow citizens to limit family size. As long as some cultures maintain a high birthrate, low birthrate leads to cultural extinction. (Unless a culture successfully converts citizens from a high birthrate culture. Or blocks immigration and refuses to support an ever growing population of world poor.)

Even within a culture different subgroups reproduce at different rates. Very intelligent women (from my experience) have few if any kids. Does society ever have the right to intervene to keep a woman from having more kids? (Remember the horror days of sterilizing the retarded and mentally ill? Forced eugenics programs.) How many “crack” babies should be allowed?

I don’t have answers but I believe the question should be discussed in a broader context than “breeders” vs. emortals.

degustibus said at July 22, 2004 12:47 AM:

One word: Struldbrugs.
(Thank you, Jon Swift)

Oh that's right, one just doesn't want immortality, one wants healthy immortality too. Why not healthy, antigravity immortality while we're at it? More: healthy, antigravity, beautiful immortality. But one also needs wealth, so why not healthy, antigravity, beautiful immortality, with lots of luck for winning the lottery, poker, and other games? Add robust virility (man-speak of course, who knows what women want?) and some kind of xray vision. Fermation. (The Fermata, The Girl, The Gold Watch and Everything) And time travel! Of course we immortals needn't bother about traveling to the future because we'll be there, but past exploration--think of the possibilities, been there done that.

Make up your own list (I've copyrighted mine, DRM, and all that). I don't want to see any healthy, antigravity, beautiful, wealthy, robustly virile, unusually lucky, time-traveling immortals with xray vision in the future, or I'll sue your asses.

An old observation, in light of the tendency to diseasify aging:

Life is a disease, death the cure.

Kurt said at July 25, 2004 2:33 PM:


The right to procreate is already ruled to be an unalienable right. This is the result of a SCOTUS ruling in 1948 in favor of plaintiffs who had been sterilized against their will because they were former mental hospital patients.

My point is that choosing tho have kids or to live forever young is fundamentally a personal choice. Governments have no business limiting the rights of people to make these kinds of choices. I have no problem with CRS being a christian. Thats his right and his personal business. Likewise, whatever I believe in or whatever choices I make with my life is my business ONLY. CRS's flaw is to believe that we should respect his religious beliefs but, at the sametime, he fails to show the same respect for other people's belief systems. As long as someone like me does not try to force him to give up his belief system, whats it to him what I believe and what choices I make with my life?

The problem with some (not all) christians is that they actually think that they are right and that everyone else is wrong. Since religious beliefs cannot be verified or falsified by scientific method and that every other religion can equally make the same claim, this attitude can be viewed as nothing other than a form of delusion.

If I am an American living in America, French law does not apply to me. Thats because the jurisdiction of French law only applies to people in France and (possibly) to French citizens living abroad. I am not a christian. I claim no affiliation or connection to the religious meme whatsoever. As such, how can the christian morality apply to me any more than the laws of France? Clearly the religion has no applicability to me. It is not possible that it would because I am not a member of it.

CRS's religious arguments against emortality can only apply to those people who are members of his religion. It is definitionally impossible for those arguments to be applicable to those people (like me) who are not members of his religion. If he believes otherwise, it surely means that he is delusional.

Randall Parker said at July 25, 2004 2:45 PM:


Procreation creates costs for the rest of us. Should someone have an absolute right to create costs for the rest of us?

As for Christians who think they are right: Look, there is not any rights-based system that avoids the problems that come from conflicting values. What religious believes people have will determine to some extent what they view as rights violations in the first place.

Is an embryo a rights-possessing entity? Some Christians think so. Who are you to say they are wrong? In the Roman Empire even babies were seen as having no rights. A father could kill a newborn baby without any legal risk of punishment.

Should the killing of a brain-dead person be considered an act of murder? Again, it depends on your definition of what is a human. People who reject a religiously motivated definition of what is a human can not all agree on an alternative definition.

Kurt said at July 25, 2004 3:39 PM:

I did not say that I agreed with the notion that procreation is an absolute right. I just stated that the SCOTUS ruled as such in 1948 and that, in a discussion of this right, this has to be taken into account. Generally, I do agree with the SCOTUS 1948 ruling. This ruling was the means to get away from the state-sponsored eugenics of the early 20th century. However, I do think that people who are negligent, on drugs, or for whatever reason would not make good responsible parents, have no business having kids. How you implement this kind of policy without trampling on the rights of responsible parents-to-be seems to be very difficult.

My values do not conflict with others because I do not seek to impose them on anyone else. Conflict of values comes from the desire to impose them on other people. Recognition that all value-based systems are "local" to individuals is the way to avoid this problem and to live in harmony. If the christians seek to impose their values on me, I have the right to defend my self and my liberty by any means necessary to make them stop.

I simply do not recognize the christian religion nor its claim to having any jurisdiction over my life and my liberty. Christianity certainly is not a consideration in determining what I want to do with my life or what choices I make. For me, personally, the religion simply does not exist.

Randall Parker said at July 25, 2004 4:07 PM:


If you support laws against murder then you are imposing your values on those who think that human sacrifice is necessary to obey the will of the Gods.

The idea that you can take a libertarian position that avoids imposing values on others is a fallacy. Just what constitutes a rights violation depends on what values you believe.

dagon said at April 6, 2005 6:29 AM:

I hate death. I've seen it and I don't like it. I anticipate the day we can get rid of it. And the change to society it will imply will be a glorious adventure. Things will become different and damn, that's a good thing. Things need to be better. It's a mess right now. Just look at salmons. They swim up the river, 99% gets killed by predators, the strongest get to breed and just an hour after breeding they die, totally undignified. It's ghastly.

People can start planning for a future. They don't know. People rape the world, screw over each other, routinely, and shrug. Who care what I do, they think. I'll be dead in a few decades.

Damn, P.R. will become important if you live centuries. You gotta behave, people will remember.

Immortality NOW. A human body is a proces. It obeys laws. It can be fixed. I think that's really the reason we're here. To improve. To grow.

To transcend salmons.

Heptanitro said at November 26, 2005 4:06 AM:

Regardless of the social system, immortality works best when the immortal makes no demands on society. The perfect genome never requires any intervention, and all biological systems can clean, repair, and regenerate themselves. There can be degrees of immortality, and the best kind is that which is no work and no bother. And I'm sure it's do-able.

But even with such a genome, one could still benefit from implantation of an arithmetic chip functionally connected to the brain. And that is only the tip of the cyber iceberg.

When technology evolves to the point that immortality is real, cybernetics will also have evolved into something that can support and augment biology.

As a practical matter, I think that the distant future will tend away from biology and towards cybernetics.

Orlon said at January 20, 2010 1:45 AM:

Medical Emortality is no-aging/no-disease
though one can still die by accident,
suicide or misadventure.

Immortality is the ability to never die.
No illness, aging, disease, or by accident.
Think a being that can be harmed, killed
temporarily but always returns to life.
They may be also indestructable.

A DC comic character I remember from the
Legion of Superheroes is Immorto.
He was in some contest if he won he could
become a member of that 30th Century Hero's
group. I don't what he did but jumped of a
high building, hit the ground, died...

But he was born with an energy within him
that gave him life again. I don't think he
was immortal (he died) but able return from
death? few of the legion hero's could do
except Wildfire who is essencially mortal
turned into energy being in a specially
made suit.

Orlon said at January 20, 2010 1:52 AM:

Here is the future of applied technologies and Humankind's Plight.

Medical emortal: Aging arrested, no aging or disease.
Physically/Mental state healthy able to learn-do a new.
Multi-jobs/careers marriages,children.

In other words choices abound. I am more spiritual than
my roman catholic upbringing. The reasons why Christian
and or Fundamentalists have such a problem with e or
immortality is they are/were with certain expectations
and limits. Your suppose to fear a deity-love-your enemies.

Death is enemy and friend taking love onesn friends too soon
or taking their pain by death. Now, one may not have to die,
ever to many is unthinable, goes against the very core of
their being and its scary.
I don't mind them choosing for themselve to seek the light.
Its when they preach,tell,scream, and demand that everone
else do what they're doing. It is wrong to block other people
from their choice in life, Death has been and with us since the
dawn of our evolution. It may be time to move on from death to
live as long as we ourselves intended.

If the deity intended for to keep dying why give the brain powered
imagination to think of new ways to avoid death.
This may be Her/His ultimate teaching/lesson to choose how long we
live not follow blind, intractable dogma.
We will improve our lot, live-love longer and be paragons of sentient
beings we're suppose to be. Those that do not want to let them chose
for their folk but not for us or generations to come.
emortality and immortality I choose both.

Empty space between the stars, mining asteroids, living in them,
Humanity scattered across the cosmos, living in ships or on other
planetary bodies, terraforming other worlds, and and a few billion
returning to Gaia to make her young again too forever even to the
point of reigniting a red turning blue star.
Or creation an artificial sun or suns who's radiant beams of
artificial light maintains earth youth beaming molecular stands
on nanite manmade starstuff keeping everything is a health state
of growth.

Those who cannot envision the future see through their minds eye
have no right to bind and blind those who can see and will do
whatever they can to move humanity forward.
Evolution is testing up again but this time we ourselves must not
only speed up but be carefull not to extinguish ourselves.
those who pray-talk of doomsday when they find it may not happen...
will try and bring it about. That's what we face there are people
who want the best for humanity to move forward and those who want
us to stop because they fear change.
I don't know about any of you readers but I choose Long life and
the stars, living in eternity not being dead eternally.

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