This post’s based on another news item to do with postponing ageing (it sort of follows on quite well from that recent one about telomerase). There seems to be a bit of a run on this in the media – or maybe it’s just because I’m getting older & more sensitive to this stuff?
It’s an item in this morning’s Herald: a US story on the rather extreme lengths that some people will go to in an attempt to postpone the ageing process. There’s an eyecatching photo (well, actually, there’s a before & an after photo) of a chap who’s 69 years old but has the physique of someone decades younger. He runs a clinic that is described as specialising in ‘age management’ – promoting a regime that supposedly keeps you younger for longer. He’s achieved this, and claims that his clients can too, by making significant changes in diet, exercising hard, and – most extreme – having daily injections of human growth hormone. (To me, this is over the top. Human growth hormone has its uses in treating children with extremely short stature – not just ‘below average’ either! After all, a reasonable proportion of the population is going to fall below the mean. And there are other clinical applications, some more controversial than others. But its use in clinically normal adults seems unjustifiable, & in fact use of human growth hormone in this way is banned in the US. But – not if it’s prescribed for ‘hormone deficiency’.)
Why am I writing this? Because I think the story raises some interesting ethical issues, which you might like to think about & which I’d like to have seen the paper give some consideration to as well. For starters, there’s that (mis)use of human growth hormone. (I have absolutely no problem with the messages about exercise & healthy eating habits.) And aside from this ethical issue, what are the long-term effects, & side-effects of the treatment? The answer is, we don’t actually know. And since it doesn’t sound like there are any controlled studies being done, we’re extremely unlikely to find out. (I see from a PubMed search that a 2007 study found that while treatment of elderly patients with HGH saw increases in weight & muscle mass, it had no impact on fitness, & did have several negative side effects. This hasn’t stopped people making all sorts of wild claims for the benefits of HGH – you have only to do a google search to see that!)
Next, one I touched on in that earlier post – is it really a good thing to have a proportion of the population living even longer (if in fact this treatment lets you do that, rather than resulting in better health in old age but with no significant extension of life)? After all, humanity already places a significant and increasing burden on Earth’s ecosystems – should we add to it? And this ‘advance’ is not going to be for everybody – those in the Western world, with an already high ecological footprint, are, I suspect, most likely to the beneficiaries of this particular innovation. If they can afford it.
And, what is it with this constant medicalisation of everything to do with our lives? "Going bald? Going through menopause? Don’t worry, a pill will fix it." Please don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to trivialise the impact of, say, menopause on the women going through it. I’m at the age where I know what it’s like at first-hand! But it’s a normal part of life. This overemphasis on medicalising such normal life events runs the risk of people feeling that anything that ails them can – & should – be fixed by taking a nice little pill. At a price. Is that really healthy? Or desirable?
[PS to be fair, the paper does look briefly at this last point. But the overall tone of the article is extremely favourable.]