Each Cyclops had a single eye because, legend has it, the mythical giants traded the other one with the god Hades in return for the ability to see into the future. But Hades tricked them: the only vision the Cyclopes were shown was the day they would die. They carried this knowledge through their lives as a burden—the unending torture of being forewarned and yet having no ability to do anything about it.
Since ancient times, aging has been viewed as simply inevitable, unstoppable, nature’s way. “Natural causes” have long been blamed for deaths among the old, even if they died of a recognized pathological condition. The medical writer Galen argued back in the second century AD that aging is a natural process.
His view, the acceptance that one can die simply of old age, has dominated ever since. We think of aging as the accumulation of all the other conditions that get more common as we get older—cancer, dementia, physical frailty. All that tells us, though, is that we’re going to sicken and die; it doesn’t give us a way to change it. We don’t have much more control over our destiny than a Cyclops.
But a growing number of scientists are questioning our basic conception of aging. What if you could challenge your death—or even prevent it altogether? What if the panoply of diseases that strike us in old age are symptoms, not causes? What would change if we classified aging itself as the disease?
David Sinclair, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, is one of those on the front line of this movement. Medicine, he argues, should view aging not as a natural consequence of growing older, but as a condition in and of itself. Old age, in his view, is simply a pathology—and, like all pathologies, can be successfully treated. If we labeled aging differently, it would give us a far greater ability to tackle it in itself, rather than just treating the diseases that accompany it.
“Many of the most serious diseases today are a function of aging. Thus, identifying the molecular mechanisms and treatments of aging should be an urgent priority,” he says. “Unless we address aging at its root cause, we’re not going to continue our linear, upward progress toward longer and longer life spans.”
Image Credit: Stuart Bradford
Thanks to Heinz V. Hoenen. Follow him on twitter: @HeinzVHoenen