Aging is important:

  • Aging kills 100,000 people per day.
  • 2/3 of all deaths are caused by aging.
  • Trillions of dollars are spent annually on the diseases and disabilities of aging.
  • Aging populations with lower percentages of working age adults threaten developed economies.

 

Aging is tractable:

  • Aging is reducible to between 7 and 12 distinct biological causes, depending who you ask.
  • Human trials for some interventions into aging, such as senolytic drugs, show promising results.
  • Experiments in mice provide further evidence of tractability.

 

Aging is neglected:

  • The very idea of curing aging is controversial to the point of taboo among most policymakers and scientists.
  • The SENS Research Foundation, one of the leading organizations working on curing aging, has a budget of only a few million dollars per year.
  • Some broadly publicized efforts to extend lifespans, such as Alphabet's Calico, focus on low-hanging fruit and not fundamental intervention in the root causes of aging.

 

Therefore, aging should be the 5th cause area that the effective altruism movement devotes its attention and resources to, joining global poverty, animal welfare, existential risk, and meta-EA.

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CEARCH did a shallow dive on ageing a few months ago (link), but our tentative conclusion is that life extension reasearch doesn't look too cost-effective (n.b. ideas tend to look good up front and worse as we understand the idea more and discount for more complications, so if anything we should expect the cause to even less cost-effective than current estimates suggest).

In any case, Nuno has a list of relevant research here if anyone wants to read more.

How can you estimate cost-effectiveness for scientific/medical research?

It's been some time, and Stan Pinsent was the primary on this project (I only provided some some input). Copying from what he wrote previously:

"How much sooner life extension technology is expected to arrive with an additional USD 10 million in research, conditional on radical life extension being possible? In 2020 Aubrey de Grey predicted that a 10x increase in funding would accelerate SRF's research by a factor of 2. It seems reasonable to assume that as a major proponent of life extension research (de Grey has donated his career and most of his personal wealth to it), this estimate is optimistic. De Grey, who was fired in 2021 and started his own research organization, later said that talent, not money, is the main barrier to progress. Since his 2020 prediction, SRF recieved a record USD 30 million annual income in 2021, which means that funding is probably now less effective than it once was. Given SNS expenditure of USD 3-5 million per year up to 2020, I interpret de Grey's prediction as "with $40m funding research would progress twice as far in a year as it would have with $4m funding". However, we have added complication of SRF's recent $30m windfall. I assume that in light of the improved funding situation, SRF's annual expenditure will grow to $20m a year. Let a year of research at a funding level of $20m be our "unit year". Then the number of unit-years of research performed in a year with $Xm extra funding can be modelled as R = ((X+20m)/20m)^log10(2) (with R=unit years of research, F=funding). This fits the prediction well because (1) when X=0, one unit-year of research is completed and (2) when the total funding is multiplied by 10, the research output doubles. Given that we are considering the impact of an $Xm donation, the question can be framed as "how many extra unit years of research could be achieved in a year with $(X+20)m funding?". So I calculate number of unit-years of research that can be performed in a year with $(X+20)m funding, then subtract 1. Note that because the prediction only extended to total funding levels up to $40m, this formula is only valid for X<$20m."

The $30M for SRF was a one-time windfall and its annual income and expenditures haven't increased nearly to $20M.

I am surprised that the CEARCH research reached the conclusion that aging research is not cost effective, when research published in nature reached the conclusion that - 

"We show that a slowdown in aging that increases life expectancy by 1 year is worth US$38 trillion, and by 10 years, US$367 trillion." (ref - https://www.nature.com/articles/s43587-021-00080-0#Sec2 )

How can research that made it into one of the most reputable scientific journals reach such divergent conclusions? 

Of course the question of how much money is needed to invest in the fundamental research to reach those outcomes is another question, yet when you are talking about benefits in the region of tens of trillions of dollars for a 1 year increase in life expectancy, it seems extremely premature to me to conclude that this would not be a cost effective investment for EA.

Additionally "De Grey, who was fired in 2021 and started his own research organization, later said that talent, not money, is the main barrier to progress." seems very weak to base an argument from an anecdote. I am certain if you ask any of the professors working on aging research whether there is a lack of talent to expand their research capacity, this would not be the limiting factor

Is this post meant to be a provocative start of a discussion or the argument in its entirety? If the latter, it really needs some attempt to be more precise about tractability. How much of the problem will marginal funding solve?

This seems like a good place to plug Dr. Michael Greger's new book, How Not to Age. It has >13k citations and talks about what people can do to slow down aging. Pre-orders are quite important for determining the marketing and ranking of book and this particular book comes out Dec 5 so there are just a couple more days to contribute to pre-order numbers. I'm told his books are quite popular in China, which could be hugely meaningful in combating the rise of animal product consumption in that country. Additionally, in the spirit of ETG, 100% of book sales go to charity!

Perhaps an interesting next read is Jack Harley's Anti-Aging: State of the Art. That said, it was written in 2020, so I'm not sure how much the overall picture has changed since.

I agree aging research is under-invested in and that research here has the potential to lead to many QALYs in the future. However, I would generalize this cause area to longevity, because I think brain preservation/cryonics is also neglected and should also be a part of this. See: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/sRXQbZpCLDnBLXHAH/brain-preservation-to-prevent-involuntary-death-a-possible

It wouldn't solve the "Aging populations with lower percentages of working age adults threaten developed economies" problem, which I think is low-key one of the biggest problems in the world and the strongest argument to work on aging.

Trillions of dollars are spent annually on the diseases and disabilities of aging.

seems to contradict

Aging is neglected

I think the idea is that lots of money is spent on treating diseases caused by aging, but little is spent on preventing aging in the first place. So I don't see a contradiction.

Ah ok so if one did not age (or age more slowly) then the likelihood of these diseases would decrease. Thanks for clarifying.

It's as if trillions of dollars per year were spent on firefighting but only millions of dollars per year were spent on fire prevention.

The 'symptomatic vs curative' distinction might take care of this apparent contradiction -- those trillions of dollars are going towards the former (i.e. the diseases and disabilities of aging), while a vanishingly small fraction in comparison goes towards the latter (e.g. senescence research).

Curated and popular this week