Date: July 1st, 2009
How exactly does one define aging research? It turns out that finding agreement on a single definition is not as easy as it seems.
If you do an Internet search for the terms “aging research” you’ll get a feel for just how confusing it can get. Your search should turn up close to 9.5 million results—including organizations, articles, speeches, blog posts, and experts. You will find that many of these sources have a different idea of what exactly aging research is—although very few will bother to define it themselves. This isn’t that surprising if you consider how young this field of research is and how much public perception plays a role in the way it’s defined. It understandably proves difficult to define it and put it in a neat box.
Despite the lack of consensus, the Alliance recently took a stab at nailing down this slippery subject in order to teach people what it means to be in the field of aging research. We used Google’s knol™ to publish our definition and get the information out to readers. Google defines a knol as a “unit of knowledge,” and through their online tool, allows users to publish knowledge in their areas of expertise. The tool is similar to Wikipedia because anyone can publish or edit an entry and the resources constantly change as more and more contributions are made.
Through our knol on aging research the Alliance has put together a definition that represents the majority, and included differences of opinion where appropriate. Visit our knol to learn more.
How Broad is the Field?
For starters, there seems to be disagreement over how broad the field is and what types of research are actually included. Some scientists would argue that aging research consists simply of biogerontology—a sub-field of gerontology (the study of aging) that “seeks to understand the mechanisms of aging and how they regulate processes in our body.” Others would argue that aging research must also include geroscience—“a relatively new, interdisciplinary field that studies the components of disease as they relate to aging.”
So what’s the difference? In the narrower field, researchers are devoted solely to understanding how aging and aging processes work. In the broader field, researchers are not only studying aging, but also attempting to figure out how those processes relate to and impact age-related diseases like cancer, cardiovascular disease, and Alzheimer’s.
We at the Alliance feel strongly that aging research must include both biogerontology and geroscience since they will not only help us to understand aging, but will also give us important clues and insight into how some of the most devastating diseases of aging work. These discoveries could help researchers make enormous progress in finding treatments and cures for multiple diseases at a time. This is crucial since having a better understanding of age-related diseases as a whole will, in the end, have a far greater impact on health and longevity than medical research that studies one disease at a time.
Major Objectives on Both Ends of the Spectrum
Most aging researchers share the common goal of increasing the number of healthy years in our lives; however, researchers have different approaches to achieving this. While the jury is still out on whether or not maximum lifespan (the maximum amount of time between birth and death) can be changed in humans, there are some researchers who believe it can be done and who are focused on slowing, stopping, or even reversing the aging process. These “life extensionists” believe that through research, we will find ways to dramatically alter the human lifespan sometime in this century.
Other researchers who disagree with this approach believe that it’s more important to study the aging process as a means to mitigate age-related disease. In theory, this would allow people to live a longer portion of their lives in good health—extending their “healthspan”—instead of facing their final years of life with debilitating chronic diseases.
The life extensionist approach to aging research has had a huge impact on public perception. Many people believe that this is all aging research has to offer—scientists looking to figure out how we can live longer. This understandably doesn’t sound desirable to everyone since it often paints a picture of more old, disabled, and dependent people who are living longer with their diseases. What is not well understood is the important link between advances in aging research and progress in fighting age-related diseases.
Unfortunately, there are also a lot of “quacks” out there who claim they have found the fountain of youth and will offer to sell it to you for “the low-low price of $29.99!!” This selling of false hopes does a lot to not only discredit aging research, but also confuses people on the real goals and objectives of the field. We hope that our knol will help lead to a better understanding and increased support of aging research.
The knol also talks about major theories of why and how we age, measuring aging, key aging research areas, and the theory of the Longevity Dividend. If you have information and expertise that you’d like to add, we encourage you to submit your thoughts for potential collaboration on this important tool.