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John A. Vincent “Ageing Contested”

Vincent, John A. 2006. Ageing Contested: Anti-ageing Science and the Cultural Construction of Old Age. Sociology 40(4): 681-698.

He starts from an evolutionary perspective, pointing out that different animal lifespans are an adaptive response to the hazards in their environment. Entropy leads everyone to age; thus ‘the eventual failure of maintenance leads to senescence, death in old age and the return to disorder’ (Holliday, 2000: 97). Ageing is failure to repair defects in ‘DNA or protein molecules’. So ageing is to do with what goes wrong in old age, with failure. (683)

„Senectitude in 1481 originally meant old age; senescencewas used in 1695 to mean growing old; and senile was used in 1661 to signify what was suited to old age. The term senility was used in 1791 to mean a state of being old or infirm due to old age. But by 1848 senilemeant weakness, and by the late nineteenth century it indicateda pathological state (Covey 1988, 294; Haber 1983, 73–74; Kirk 1992, 491). The term has taken on greater medical negative connotations ever since.” (Katz, 1996: 41) (686)

Four types of anti-ageing science:
1) Symptom alleviation: Thus one type of anti-ageing medicine that the scientific biogerontologists separate themselves from might be called symptom alleviation. These are attempts to hide, postpone or relieve the effects of biological ageing. While such techniques have been practised for most of history, new methods can be devised using the knowledge, experimental method and technical sophistication of modern science. These new techniques are subject to an enormous commercialization potential (Estes, 1979; Estes et al., 1984). Three subcategories of this type of anti-ageing medicine can be identified: (1) cosmetic – powder and paint, anti-wrinkle cream, etc., to disguise the signs of ageing; (2) prophylactic – exercise and diet or vitamin pills to stave off the onset of physical ageing and its signs; and (3) compensatory – Viagra and HRT, designed to re-invigorate ‘failing’ functions to a youthful standard. […] Thus the implicit definition of old age in this form of anti-ageing medicine is that of appearance. To look old is to be old. The boundary between youth and old age in this way of looking at the world is marked by physical appearance. (689)
2) Life expectancy extension: Thus the dominant view of old age that comes from this discourse sees it as a stage in life medically defined wherein people are in the first instance ‘at risk’ from a set of specific diseases and thereafter afflicted by them. Old age from this perspective is not fundamentally about appearance of the body per se, but about the diseased condition of the human body. What distinguishes old age from youth is its disease status. Thus people no longer die of old age but of a specific disease. These days most gerontologists, whether biologists, medics or social scientists, tend to define their objectives in terms of ‘health span’, that is to say the extension of illness-free years of life. Such consensus nevertheless leaves a serious unresolved ambiguity about extending life for its own sake. This dilemma is hidden if old age is simply thought of as a disease; ill health is by definition bad, but wanting to be healthy is not the same as wanting to live forever. (690)
3) Lifespan extension: Combating disease may increase life expectancy, but some bio-gerontologists make claims to increase the lifespan. These disputes as to whether there is a natural lifespan that is independent of death from specific diseases are about establishing scientific credibility for anti-ageing science in the specific form of research into genetics and cellular senescence. Key issues in the control of ageing are identifying genes for ageing, limiting metabolic and oxidation damage, removal of worn-out or damaged cells, cell replication and protection, use of stem cells for replacement therapies and combating the reduced efficiency of the immune system with age. (690-691)
This view detaches old age from the level of the organism and the level of humanity. It is worth noting Rose’s (1997) criticism that modern biology does not pay sufficient attention to the whole organism, in this case the whole human being (cf. Dupré, 2002). He powerfully argues that biology neglects the totalizing, broader picture of the whole organism, concentrating instead on cells, genes and biochemical processes. In the literature considered above, there is a fuzziness about the human identity of the phenomena which age. There is a whole unspoken level at which people’s identity and their values and motivations are simply taken for granted. (691)
4) Abolition: Some bio-gerontologists do indeed make the explicit claim that it will be possible to reverse ageing or to create immortality (cf. Shostak, 2002). However, many participants in such research deny this and profess not to see the connection (de Grey, 2003; Turner, 2004). The boundary problem for them is to position modern bio-gerontology outside the realm of fantastical claims discredited in the past, and limited to a technical debate rather than an ethical or ‘sociological’ agenda. Immortality is not a new objective. It has been the implicit goal of post-Enlightenment science and its aim of perfecting humans through progress. It is subject to not only biological speculation but also philosophical and cultural debate. Most thought experiments with immortality portray it as a dystopia (e.g. Raikhel, 2000).(692)

The most efficient way with currently available technology to extend human lifeexpectancy would be to devote resources to reducing infant mortality in the developing world. This, of course, would do nothing for the human lifespan. Within the framework of a culture that equates science with progress and human domination of nature with success, old age will forever be condemned as the failure of scientific modernity. (693)

Wherever bio-gerontologists are positioned in the fourfold classification outlined above, they all start with the view that human ageing is primarily a biological process capable of technical control. The modern dilemma involved in constructing nature as separate from humanity and subject to its control leads to cultural ambivalence towards scientifically engineered life extension (Bauman, 1991). (693)

There is an irredeemable cultural logic – if death is a solvable problem, then old age will be a failure. Only by re-naturalizing the idea of a ‘healthy death’ can we reconstruct a positive old age. It is a tribute to the power of the biomedical model of old age that many find it difficult to think of such a phrase as meaningful, or misconstrue it as a euphemism for euthanasia. However, for old age to be seen as a successful conclusion to life requires life to be defined culturally in other ways than as the continuation of bodily functions (Vincent, 2003a). (694)

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