In this episode of X10, we discuss three reasons why people don’t care about curing aging. Getting people to care about elderly dying from a deadly disease is relatively easy, but getting them to care about the cause of their frailty and immune susceptibility, aging itself, is a bit different.
- The elderly are most at risk of death if infected with COVID-19: https://ourworldindata.org/coronavirus#case-fatality-rate-of-covid-19-by-age
- A study found out that people can be harsher towards identifiable wrongdoers than generic ones: Small, D. A., & Loewenstein, G. (2005). The devil you know: The effects of identifiability on punishment. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 18(5), 311-318.
- The difference between a specific victim and a potential victim might partly explain IVE: Jenni, K., & Loewenstein, G. (1997). Explaining the identifiable victim effect. Journal of Risk and uncertainty, 14(3), 235-257.
- Our instinct to avoid certain losses may be stronger than our desire for potential gains: Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1992). Advances in prospect theory: Cumulative representation of uncertainty. Journal of Risk and uncertainty, 5(4), 297-323.
- There’s evidence that IVE doesn’t work well on identified groups: Kogut, T., & Ritov, I. (2005). The “identified victim” effect: An identified group, or just a single individual?. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 18(3), 157-167.
- The quote by Michael Sheen can be found on The Guardian and on IMDB.
- The quote by Jay Olshansky can be found at the bottom of this PDF on his website.
If you want to read more about the misconception of the two deaths that we talked about in the episode, check out this article on the Lifespan.io blog.
A good place to start reading about the identifiable victim effect is in our Life Extensionist’s Guide to Cognitive Biases.
About the reasons why people may rationalize and justify aging, and why they don’t seem very interested in curing it, you may also want to check out the status quo bias and the fallacy of appeal to normality.
This article on the Huffington Post was written by a 90-year-old woman who responded to the lack of consideration for the elderly of some people during the COVID-19 pandemic by saying: “I’m not disposable, and I’m saddened that there are people who think age dictates whether a human life is worth saving.” This very much applies to aging in general, and it puts the final nail in the coffin of the idea that there’s an age when you have, by default, lived your life. We didn’t manage to include commentary on this article in this episode, but we thought it was definitely relevant and worth mentioning here.Script
During the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, protecting people in high-risk groups was a high priority for every country around the world. Older people, and especially those older than 80, were at higher risk of death from the novel coronavirus infection, and this is hardly a surprise.
People with pre-existing conditions are a lot more likely than others to die because of COVID-19, and the older you are, the more likely you are to have multiple chronic diseases. That’s probably why the elderly are the most at risk. They’re more frail and less resilient than the rest of us.
This doesn’t apply only to COVID-19. Other infectious diseases, too, are more dangerous for the elderly, because their immune systems are too weak to fight back. They’re more likely to catch a disease in the first place, and they don’t respond to vaccines so well.
Most people find it imperative to protect the elderly from COVID-19, or other infections, precisely because they are more likely to die of them. They want to save elderly lives, and not just from COVID-19. They’d probably be more than happy if Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and so on, were all cured, because diseases are bad and saving the lives they endanger is good; but to these very same people, dying of old age is a different story, it’s perfectly fine, and they’re all for it.
The only problem is, there is no such thing as dying of old age.
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In this episode, I would like to focus on the sharp contradiction there is when people want to save the lives of old people from things like COVID-19 but not from aging itself. It’s not uncommon for people to be actively against curing aging and to have all sorts of objections to it—some silly, others definitely worth discussing—but that’s different from simply not caring. I don’t know for sure why so many people seem not to care at all, but I can think of a few possible reasons.
The misconception of the two deaths is something I came up with, and it’s based on the fact that there’s no such thing as dying of old age, even though people may think otherwise.
In my personal experience, people seem to believe there are two broad kinds of death: a “natural”, “normal” kind of death that closes the circle of life, so to speak, and an “unnatural”, “abnormal” death that takes you away before your time. The first one happens when you die of old age and it’s the “right” kind of death, while the second kind of death happens because of things like accidents and diseases, including the diseases of aging.
Basically, if you happen to die peacefully in your sleep past your seventies, that’s the “right” kind of death, and everything else is premature death. This is a misconception because, in fact, there is only one kind of death, and it happens when something essential in your body stops working. What, how, and why are just details.
Sure, if you die in your sleep without even noticing, that’s better than dying after years of battling cancer or dementia, but the essence is still the same: something essential in your body went south on you. Having a quiet heart attack while sleeping sounds less disease-like than atherosclerosis does, but it’s still a medical condition that happens because aging gradually damages your body.
Nobody dies of “old age”. That’s just shorthand to say that the processes of aging damaged your body to the point it couldn’t function anymore. Maybe they led to a specific disease, like Alzheimer’s, or maybe “just” to the generalized frailty that made you fall into the high-risk group for COVID-19; either way, aging made you more vulnerable to health threats, and one of them ended up killing you.
There are different reasons why people may draw an illusory line between “right” and “premature” death. One of them is that dying as a consequence of the frailty caused by aging appears as a smooth process that happens on its own, even though that’s not entirely true. Lifestyle choices can and do speed up and slow down that process to some extent, so the idea of a “natural” death that happens only when you had lived for as long as you possibly could isn’t exactly accurate.
Another reason is that, if you die of aging, you probably had enough time to reach all the traditional milestones of a human life: education, career, family, and so on. Once that happens, you’re generally not healthy enough to do much other than look after your grandkids, which might seem to suggest that aging grants us just the right lifespan to do all that is expected in a “normal” human life. That would be quite a coincidence, and in fact, it’s the other way around: the milestones of human life are scheduled around its length. Our lifespans did most definitely not stretch and shrink to perfectly accommodate our favorite milestones.
The final reason for the misconception of the two deaths is also a very plausible reason why people don’t seem to give a flying about curing aging: they want to ignore the elephant in the room.
Let’s face it: no matter what people say, nobody enjoys a decaying body and nobody looks forward to that. Despite all the talk about enjoying your golden years, I think things stand in an entirely different way, which was perfectly summarised by actor Michael Sheen when he said: “Getting older is a struggle. I always feel that just under the surface of acceptance and enjoyment of the aging process is a terrible hysteria just waiting to burst out.”
The problem is, we can’t cure aging yet, and it’s unclear how close we are to being able to do it. Certainly not close enough for most people to be willing to get their hopes up and risk terrible disappointment if anything were to go wrong. If we were a lot closer—for example, if we were already able to fully rejuvenate animal models or if we had achieved even modest but measurable rejuvenation in humans—I think most people would switch camp overnight, just like that.
For now, though, I think the majority of people prefer to ignore the whole issue altogether, because acknowledging it might lead them to reconsider their own beliefs, finally see the damn elephant in the room, and realize they don’t want to be stomped all over by it but also face the fact that it’s not certain if they can avoid it. They’ll let the elephant tap dance on them while telling themselves they’re cool with that rather than take the risk of spending the rest of their lives waiting for an elephant gun that might not even work.
Actually, there’s something I’d like to ask you. In my experience, most of the time I share anything related to life extension on social media, it’s mostly ignored by everyone, unlike other stuff. Maybe it’s the Facebook algorithm, maybe it’s my way of phrasing things—maybe I need better social media friends. Or maybe it’s true that people are trying really hard to ignore life extension. What’s your experience? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
The third and final reason why people don’t seem to care about curing aging might be the identifiable victim effect, or IVE. If you’ve ever heard the phrase: “A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic”, that’s basically the identifiable victim effect in a nutshell.
IVE is the tendency of individuals to more readily offer help to specific victims who can be identified than to larger, more vaguely defined groups. It’s a well-known cognitive bias that has been observed not only when it comes to lending a helping hand but also in reverse when it comes to punishing crimes: a study found out that people can be harsher towards identifiable wrongdoers than generic ones.
Researchers note that because of IVE, people are willing to throw all kinds of money, effort, and resources to save a single, specific victim, even if they’re not related to them, while getting people to donate to charity to prevent many potential victims, for example, is a lot harder.
The difference between a specific victim and potential might partly explain IVE. Typically, nobody will ask you to help a specific victim before he or she is actually in danger, while potential victims, by definition, are not yet in danger, and any help you might offer is preventative.
Quite simply, we might be hardwired to worry more about an immediate danger that’s already here and affecting a real person than a potential danger that is far in the future and hasn’t victimized anyone yet. Statistical victims are unspecified someones whom we predict may be in danger in the future, and acting in advance to save them is just a potential gain. Not saving an identified victim is a certain loss, and research suggests that our instinct to avoid certain losses may be stronger than our desire for potential gains, even if they’re much larger than the certain losses.
Now, what does this have to do with aging? A lot, I think. When life extension advocates talk about the importance of saving the lives of old people from aging, they’re essentially talking about the largest group of statistical victims ever—the entire world. You can brush it off and say that old people getting heart attacks in their sleep is just the circle of life or something like that. If you chanced upon a single elderly man having a heart attack in the middle of the street, the circle of life would probably not even cross your mind as you reached for your phone to call an ambulance.
That’s why I think that comparing the victims of aging to other kinds of victims might be completely ineffective: no matter how many more die of aging than of anything else, they might be perceived as second-class statistical victims not as worthy of attention as identifiable victims.
Of course, the fact that everyone suffers from aging also means that it’s not just about statistical victims; each and everyone of us personally knows elderly people who will be killed by aging, and we ourselves will be on the checkout list one day. That’s where other factors may come into play.
Old people you personally know, like your grandparents, are not statistical victims, and you also have emotional reasons to care about them. When it comes to their own aging, people may be too shortsighted to care, especially if they’re still young. As demographer of aging Jay Olshansky once put it, they might be living in a dreamworld, denying that aging occurs or thinking it doesn’t have to, but eventually reality will hit them. Or they might think that they will not have it as bad as other people. Or, as I said before, they might not think about it because they don’t want to, so they rationalize it away with the circle of life, the boredom of living too long, or something crazy like that.
There’s also the fact that we’re not directly causing aging to hurt anyone; it will do so only if we do nothing to prevent it, and inaction may not seem as bad as actively hurting someone, especially at such an early stage. Not donating to aging research doesn’t feel as bad as it would feel if rejuvenation treatments already existed and you denied them to an old person, and that wouldn’t feel remotely as bad as it would if aging didn’t exist in the first place and you artificially inflicted it onto someone!
Whatever the reasons why people seem to so nonchalantly ignore aging and what we could do to stop it from killing us, I wish everybody realized that saving the lives of old people, identifiable or not, is just as important as saving those of everybody else, and not just from COVID-19 or cancer. Aging kills only the old, but as the Director-General of WHO said about COVID-19, not worrying about a disease that kills only the old and sick is moral decay.
But what’s your take on it? Why do you think people don’t pay much attention to aging research, and don’t seem to care whether it will be cured or not? Let me know in the comments below.
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