The time has come for anti-aging research to incorporate behavioral and social science into its agenda, according to Terrie Moffitt, a psychology and neuroscience professor at Duke University . She explains that doing so will help researchers translate fundamental findings into useful therapies and guide us in ensuring that aging therapies benefit as many people as possible.
A broader picture
Moffitt contends that longevity research needs to incorporate behavioral and social approaches to build on the gains made by biological research. The intense focus on understanding aging at the molecular and physiological level has borne fruit in several candidate therapies, and some of these are moving into human trials. These trials would benefit greatly from the tools and know-how of behavioral and social science, explains Moffitt.
“The move from slowing fundamental processes of aging in laboratory animals to slowing aging in humans will not be as simple as prescribing a pill and watching it work,” Moffitt said in a press release. “Compared to aging in laboratory animals, human aging has many behavioral/social in addition to cellular origins and influences. These influences include potential intervention targets that are uniquely human, and therefore are not easily investigated in animal research.”
Human aging is influenced by social and behavioral traits, such as socioeconomic conditions, mental health, and support networks. The social hallmarks approach to aging highlights these factors as causative in their own right rather than being merely ancillary to the biological hallmarks. Translating longevity research from the lab to real-life applications will therefore have to account for these factors.
A helping hand
Moffitt proposes several ways in which behavioral and social approaches could help. First, they may identify interventions that are uniquely human, such as societal changes to reduce chronic stress or improve stress resilience. They can also help measure how social factors affect the pace of aging in various cases; individual differences in the pace of aging resulting from social factors can be large enough to overcome the effects of some purely biological interventions.
In addition, longevity researchers can benefit from the expertise of the behavioral and social sciences in the design and evaluation of effective trials in humans. For example, “the same behavioral/social personal-history characteristics that predict rapid pace of aging have also been shown to influence who volunteers for trials, who adheres to treatment regimens, and who completes treatment protocols,” writes Moffitt. It may be beneficial for scientists to draw from behavioral/social research in overcoming such issues.
Another area where behavioral and social research can help is in developing and evaluating metrics for trial outcomes. For example, Moffitt points out that aging metrics such as epigenetic clocks may have trouble if they were trained using data from people with varying birth years. “A long-established principle in the science of human development is that findings from cross-sectional comparisons between groups of individuals with different birth years do not guarantee findings about longitudinal developmental aging within the same individual over time,” she wrote, explaining that participants with earlier birth years may have had more early-life exposure to factors like certain diseases, tobacco smoke, and airborne lead, as well as differences in nutrition and education. If these factors affect the metrics used by a clock, then the clock might more closely measure a person’s birth year rather than that person’s biological age.
Moffitt reports that appropriately designed longitudinal studies have provided “initial proof of principle validating an epigenetic methylation signature […] measuring how fast an individual has been declining biologically.” Epigenetic clocks may have passed the test, but the idea of testing them and the methods to do so draw on research in the behavioral and social sciences.
Longevity for all
Finally, Moffitt is concerned with equality in the outcome of longevity research. She points out that longevity enthusiasts tend to be from socially advantaged groups, and she stresses the idea that longevity research should integrate agendas to tackle health disparities. “It’s vital that geroscience advances be delivered to everyone, not just the well-to-do, because individuals who experience low education, low incomes, adverse early-life experiences, and prejudice are the people who age fastest and die youngest,” she said in a press release.
An important avenue for accomplishing this is to ensure diversity in longevity clinical trials, according to Moffitt. She holds that trials should include people from disadvantaged backgrounds, such as low socioeconomic status and education, as well as victims of prejudice or health inequalities. Moffitt also contends that because disadvantaged groups such as these are most in need of anti-aging therapies, it’s important to test whether a potential therapy would help them and to make the effort to discover and develop interventions that address their problems.
Geroscience is the study of how to slow biological aging to extend healthspan and longevity. Geroscience has not heretofore incorporated behavioral or social-science methods or findings into its agenda, but the current expansion of the agenda to human trials of anti-aging therapies will be greatly aided by behavioral and social science. This article recommends some ways in which geroscience can be augmented through collaboration with behavioral and social science to: accomplish translation from animal models to humans; inform the design of clinical trials of anti-aging therapies; develop outcome measures for evaluating efficacy of anti-aging therapies, and reduce and not exacerbate health disparities.
Moffitt isn’t criticizing longevity research as such; rather, she calls for it to incorporate behavioral and social science methods and insights while building on the fruits of fundamental research. This seems like valuable guidance on the path forward as researchers try to translate lab results into ‘real world’ applications, making sure that anti-aging therapies benefit everyone, not just the wealthy. Achieving a society in which everyone has access to longevity will doubtless call for insights and resources beyond the ken of basic biology.
- Moffitt, TE. Behavioral and Social Research to Accelerate the Geroscience Translation Agenda. Ageing Research Reviews (2020), doi: 10.1016/j.arr.2020.101146