At times, I think that I have written enough rejuvenation advocacy articles and that every time I write a new one, I’m just repeating myself. I sometimes say to myself that I’ve written about concerns and misconceptions from so many angles that I’ve probably exhausted all the options. However, from time to time, there comes the bittersweet reassurance that I’m not going to be out of a job any time soon.
I came across a Refinery29 article titled “‘Anti-Aging’ Is Officially Being Phased Out—& That’s Good News For Women.” The article summarizes, and wholeheartedly agrees with, a report by the Royal Society For Public Health, “That Age Old Question“. The report endeavors to expose ageism and help end discrimination against older people, but while it does make a handful of valid points, it seems to suggest that sweeping the true nature of aging under the rug will help to end ageism.
Everything in the report revolves around people’s and society’s attitudes towards aging and how the authors think that these should change in order to eliminate age-related discrimination. There’s no mention of aging as the chronic, progressive process of deterioration that the scientific literature talks about; there’s not a word about medical research with the potential to prevent age-related diseases, nor is the importance of intervening on the root causes of aging to prevent diseases, and indirectly, ageism, even hinted at. The cited research appears to be mostly sociological in nature, focused on ageism and perception of aging, or gerontological studies on how having a positive attitude towards aging may ameliorate some aspects of it. Embracing aging, having a positive attitude, and thinking of it as an opportunity rather than as a challenge, plus a few other suggestions for workplace and education policies, seem to be all it takes.
Quite frankly, if you were an alien who’s never heard of aging before and you read this report, you’d likely get the impression that the ill health of humans in old age is just a myth fueled by stereotypes and negative perception of the phenomenon, even though the report does make concessions now and again, such as the fact that memory decline is a result of biological processes. The poor mental and physical health of old age are described as being merely “negative stereotypes” very early on in the report’s foreword, yet later sections of the report suggest bringing together nursing homes and youth clubs to better integrate generations; however, if nursing homes for the elderly exist, age-related ill health is obviously not merely a stereotype.
Similarly, while individual elderly people may be able to make meaningful contributions to the economy before age-related disease takes their lives, the economic burden of an aging population is a real problem, not just a stereotype. It is hard to believe that any society would come up with retirement if elderly people’s ability to work was mostly comparable to that of younger people; it is similarly hard to believe that governments and economists who worry about the expected surge in the elderly population of the next few decades, and about the consequences that they might have on our pension systems, are worrying about something that originates in prejudice rather than biology—or that they’re not worrying at all but didn’t go through the trouble of letting the rest of us know.
To be fair, rare, timid acknowledgements that societal issues due to aging deserve attention are present; however, more often than not, one gets the feeling that the report is downplaying their magnitude, especially when it states that aging is “catastrophized” by the media. This very claim implies that aging is not a catastrophe, even though the fact that aging slowly erodes your health, and ultimately takes your life, is a well-established, obvious scientific truth. Fearmongering depictions of aging are of little use, but overlooking the harmful nature of aging is arguably far worse.
The report makes a great deal of how positive attitudes and beliefs on aging may have positive effects on your health and, conversely, that negative attitudes may be harmful. This notion, however sensible, is reiterated so many times that one is left with the impression that the authors are using it to divert attention from the fact that the ill health of old age is ultimately outside of individual control, and that regardless of one’s attitude and beliefs, the health of a typical older person is significantly worse than that of a typical young adult—something that the report failed to decisively acknowledge, preferring to suggest focusing on the “positives” of aging instead.
Each and every time the RSPH report talks about focusing on the opportunities of aging (never specified to begin with) or its alleged positives, it betrays a failure to differentiate between chronological and biological aging.
This distinction becomes elementary given the definition of biological aging—a progressive decline in health and functionality and a rise in mortality, whether you embrace the “damage accumulation” or the “program” school of thought—and the obvious fact that, while biological aging cannot occur without chronological aging, the latter doesn’t imply the former. As we have repeated ad nauseam, the rate of aging varies significantly across species and even between individuals within the same species, and some rare species don’t even appear to age at all.
Chronological aging, and all the positives it may bring, are one thing; biological aging and the diseases it causes are another. The wisdom of old age is only a possible consequence of chronological aging, depending on how you lived your life; if you spent the first 80 years of your life in isolation, without studying or experiencing much at all, you would hardly be any wiser than a well-read 30-year-old who’s traveled the world, met hundreds of people, and lived through many experiences. Conversely, the diseases of old age are virtually universal if you live long enough, even though your lifestyle can and does make a difference. Whether it’s from Alzheimer’s or “just” a heart attack, aging kills, and it does so in the only possible way—compromising your health. While the report presented a UK poll suggesting that people have a strongly positive attitude towards increasing wisdom with age, this poll conflates chronological aging and biological aging, which comes with neither opportunities nor positives. Granted, mourning over it won’t help, and it’s no surprise that a positive attitude may help; however, there’s a difference between staying positive and lying to yourself about the nature of a phenomenon that is proven beyond doubt to be harmful.
The big blunder
To be clear, the authors of the report don’t openly oppose medical research against aging. Given that no mention of it was made, it’s unclear whether they’re even aware of the possibility and if they would endorse it or not. Their intent to undo age-based discrimination is genuine, if misguided. It’s certainly a good idea, as they suggest, to bring closer together different generations and encourage interpersonal relationships between people of different age ranges, but one cannot disregard the fact that, even with the best of lifestyles and attitudes, the elderly do suffer from a series of ailments that make their lives more difficult, if not impossible. It’s not just a stereotype, and it’s not just attitude or lifestyle. We’re not doing the elderly a favor by saying otherwise.
One point that is easy to agree with is about the use of the expression “anti-aging” related to cosmetics. This is an aspect that the Refinery29 article hammered a lot on, going as far as to say that the term is “officially” being phased out when it’s just something that RSPH is calling for. However, it’s true that no amount of cream and cosmetics is going to undo your aging, for the simple reason that these do not even come close to acting on its root causes; at best, they might mask to some extent some of the most superficial aspects of aging; at worst, they may cause skin irritation or damage.
“Anti-aging” and similar terms have become synonymous with snake oil that parts fools from their money; this, in turn, has made and still makes it hard for the idea of rejuvenation to be taken seriously. The thought of aging as something that can be undone makes many people raise an eyebrow in sarcastic disbelief, and this disbelief is so ingrained that some people don’t even think to review the available evidence. For these reasons, it is certainly desirable to ban the word in the context of cosmetics; unfortunately, the reasons why RSPH demands this ban are somewhat different:
[…] However, the narrative pushed by ‘anti-ageing’ terminology and products is one that pervades society and has relevance to us all. All human beings – at all stages of life – are ageing in their own way, as a natural consequence of being alive. Hence, the explicit presumption that ageing is something undesirable and to be battled at every turn is as nonsensical as it is dangerous. To be ‘anti-ageing’ makes no more sense than being ‘anti-life’.
We call on major outlets such as Boots and Superdrug, and beauty industry magazines, to follow the lead of Allure magazine and ban the use of the term ‘anti-ageing’, and to re-focus their ageing narrative on opportunities to be embraced rather than processes to be resisted.
The “opportunities to be embraced” have already been discussed above; as for the question of beauty standards and body norms, this is explained here and here. The truly disturbing part, ironically highlighted by Refinery29 as one of the strongest points, is the first paragraph of the quote, which is simply a smokescreen filled with buzzwords that appeal to one’s emotional side, bypassing rationality altogether.
The paragraph assumes that naturalness is sufficient for something to be desirable and not fought against; in other words, it assumes the appeal to nature fallacy. However, aging is not the only natural consequence of being alive: vulnerability to viral diseases and cancer, along with the risk of being prey to another animal, are among the natural consequences of being alive for the vast majority of living things. By this reasoning, being “anti-cancer” should make no more sense than being “anti-life”, and so on. Additionally, it is paradoxical that “anti-aging” is equated to “anti-life”, given that biological aging represents an increase in mortality risk. This fallacy alone casts serious doubts on the authors’ understanding of this issue.
Ending ageism is nearly as important as ending aging; for one, if ageism wasn’t a thing, rejuvenation advocates wouldn’t have to spend time debating people who think that older people living too long would lead to cultural stagnation because of their alleged “old people mentality”. However, ageism won’t be defeated by sugarcoating aging, which only adds insult to injury.