How do we tackle aging and climate change?

by | Jun 28, 2023

A political theorist argues that overpopulation concern is not a morally defensible reason to stifle life-extending interventions as the climate warms.
Old man walking in Coyoacán, CDMX

Aging is a universal phenomenon we must all confront. The longer we live, the more our bodies deteriorate on the cellular level, eventually resulting in cognitive and physical decline. Despite this inevitability, medical advances have allowed people to live longer worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, the number of people aged 80 years or older will triple between 2020 and 2050, with the most profound shift toward old age occurring in low- and middle-income countries.  

This increase in lifespan is great news for humanity. However, healthspan — the number of years a person remains healthy — is equally important. Maintaining good health for as long as humanly possible is something we all hope for and many of us actively aspire toward.

As longevity research intensifies and becomes more mainstream, do-it-yourself strategies known as biohacking are being popularized by podcasts and social media, and more sophisticated anti-aging interventions such as gene therapy and stem cell therapy have been shown to be feasible, making the goal of prolonged youth achievable to an extent.

But these successes have a flip side. Population aging also means a greater number of people inhabiting the planet, which some believe is exacerbating climate change, an emerging threat to both lifespan and healthspan in the 21st century. This worry has spawned a philosophical debate over whether advancing gerotherapeutic drugs that combat age-related disease and extend lifespan is actually ethical given the climate crisis and Earth’s dwindling natural resources.

Ageism and apathy

Age-based discrimination, known as ageism, is at the root of this debate. Some Generation Z and Millennial climate-change activists, including Greta Thunberg, have pointed the finger at older generations, presuming that those approaching the end of their lifespans are apathetic about the state of the planet and the fate of younger generations because their own lives will soon come to an end. Gerontologiphobia, the fear that elderly people are unproductive members of society who consume more than they produce, has also insidiously crept into the debate.

These dangerous, polarizing assumptions have tainted the tone of climate change activism, creating a generational divide. Communication between geroscience advocates and climate scientists has also been lacking, further creating an academic divide.   

Some knowledge workers, including Colin Farrelly, a political theorist and philosopher at Queen’s University in Ontario, Canada, are hoping to change this unhelpful narrative into a more optimistic, collaborative one that takes the interdependence of climate change and aging into account.

“Climate change activism often stokes intergenerational conflict to try to galvanize collective action,” Farrelly explained. “The youth of today will survive into late life, and the harms of climate change will increase their health risks in late life. So, the youth of today should have a substantive interest in the science of healthy aging, as well as climate science.   

“I think the biggest misconception is the belief that altering the rate of biological aging is morally problematic because it might increase lifespan and therefore exacerbate the problems of climate change. But the reality is that older persons are among those most susceptible to the harms of climate change, so improving health in late life would help mitigate many of the health threats from climate change.”

Addressing age-related vulnerabilities

As the global mean temperature rises and extreme weather becomes more common, respiratory and heart diseases, Lyme disease, mosquito-borne diseases, such as malaria, and water- and food-borne illnesses are becoming more widespread. Naturally, older adults, many of whom have limited mobility and compromised immune systems, are more vulnerable to these health threats than younger people and are more likely to be injured in catastrophic weather events.

Farrelly stresses that rather than focusing solely on increasing lifespan via disease control, controlling the rate of aging should be a priority. This approach would increase people’s quality of life and healthspan, delaying the time spent living with chronic disease, disability, and frailty.

“Unfortunately, many areas of scientific research function within a ‘silo mentality,’ so scientists only read studies in their own field of study and have little understanding of findings in other areas of study,” he stated. This mentality has inhibited the integration of climate science with geroscience.

“The first step forward would be more interdisciplinary dialogue, so that scientists that work on climate change and those that work on the biology of aging have a better understanding of each other and can foster the interdisciplinary dialogue needed to help us think sagely about how best to meet the public health predicaments of the 21st century.” 

The most important message Farrelly wants to convey is that overpopulation concerns do not warrant sabotaging public health interventions.

“We should not eschew public health interventions in name of combatting climate change,” he warned. “An applied gerontological intervention would likely be this century’s most significant public health intervention because aging is a risk factor not only for climate-change-related health risks but for cancer, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s, etc.”

Reference: Colin Farrelly, Geroscience and climate science: Oppositional or complementary? Aging Cell (2023). DOI: 10.1111/acel.13890

Feature image credit: Héctor López on Unsplash

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