Meadville Tribune

April 10, 2014

Aging — is it a disease to be cured?

By James Drane
Special to the Tribune

— If you are already old, get ready for what comes next. If you are not old yet but on the way, it is not too early to start thinking about aging and dying, because both are part of being human.

The aging experience that awaits adults and middle-agers, and already challenges the older generation, is complicated. It has both physical and mental dimensions. A progressive degeneration of the body is accompanied by mental losses, especially the memory. Aging is the gradual loss of many different life functions, joined with the approaching inevitability of death.

Strength and speed are lost. Abilities and immunities decline. Appearance changes in ways we would never want. Finally, our bodies give out and life ends. Aging and dying are linked.

Don’t be depressed by all this. Everything about aging is not negative and loss. Our physical bodies degrade and become more frail, but human understanding and judgment often improve with age. The longer some people live the wiser they become. An old person may not like how he or she looks but may cherish and enjoy the respect gained from their perceived wisdom.

Contemporary scientific medicine has just recently reached 100 years here in the U.S. and has made extraordinary contributions to our life experience. Imagine what life was like before there were antibiotics and vaccines. X-rays, IVs and EKGs also did not exist. Neither did anesthesia. Can you even imagine what surgery was like? The average age here in the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century was 47. In England it was 41.

What today is seen as American medicine, in the 19th century was German medicine. It has come a long way during its first century here. Imagine how life was before available treatments for heart disease, lung disease and viral epidemics. So much of what was once fatal now is survivable. As a result, people in their 80s today have about double the lifetime of most people in the 19th century.

Medicine linked with hard scientific research has extended human life and retarded aging, but it will never do away with aging and dying. Most of the extended lifespan in fact comes from combating early death in young and middle aged people. Improvements in public health (e.g. immunization) and effective combating of frequent infant mortality were both major contributors to extended lifespans today.

Once old age is reached, however, the issues facing a person are many. The symptoms of aging are both numerous and diverse. They include physical, mental and social impairments. Treatments have been developed to address many of these.

Medications to treat declines in hormones like testosterone and estrogen accomplish this objective. The hormone replacement medications, however, have their own serious side-effects. None of the medications to treat specific aging symptoms have shown much life-span extension. To achieve this goal will require much more time and research.

Besides the scientific questions raised by age retardation medications, there are also ethical questions. With lifespan extension and aging retardation, will maturity and responsibility also be retarded? What if after being retarded, aging comes all of a sudden? Death would also come quickly. Life would be full of health and vigor, then followed by quick aging and death.

Now we are talking about changing human life and human experience. This might be fine for some but tragic for most. With such changes we have entered the world of ethics. When we talk about changing human nature, that pushes us also into the world of philosophy and theology. Is God the creator of human life, or is human life the creation of medical scientists?

Changing human nature is serious business. The effects of changing human nature are enormous. For some of today’s secular persons with postmodern belief systems, the effects will be just fine. For others, curing “the disease of aging” will be a scientific advance with consequences that are destructive of the order, beauty and purpose of creation. Who will be the creator we can trust — God or a few post-modern scientists? What will life past 100, then 150 be like in the “new world”?

Aging retardation and life extension seem like goods that we can all support and agree to pursue. But we also have to be careful. Medicine and science have brought much good, but we have to look at life and the world from more than one perspective. We need to keep contemporary science in ongoing communication with the insights of theology, philosophy and ethics.

James Drane, Ph.D., is the Russell Roth Professor of Bioethics at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.