The truth about anti-aging depends on how we define aging

In 2002, three eminent scientists warned the public saying that there is no such thing as anti-aging. In a Position Paper first published in Scientific American, now available on Quackwatch, these scientists debunk antiaging treatments. Noting the fact that few scientists address the public directly, the authors believe that the danger of misinformation regarding anti-aging is so serious that scientists must break their self-imposed silence:

“There has been a resurgence and proliferation of health care providers and entrepreneurs who are promoting antiaging products and lifestyle changes that they claim will slow, stop or reverse the processes of aging. … The purpose of this document is to warn the public against the use of ineffective and potentially harmful antiaging interventions and to provide a brief but authoritative consensus statement from 51 internationally recognized scientists in the field about what we know and do not know about intervening in human aging,” (Olshansky, 2004).

This position paper reminds me of a Chinese restaurant we visit. When the place is full, diners wait for an empty table, and then stand next to it waiting until someone clears it. Soon a waiter approaches, takes the four corners of the tablecloth and lifts everything off the table at one go. The table is bare. That is what Olshansky and his colleagues have given the public in this paper: a clear statement that nothing works, “…any claim that a person’s biological or ‘ real age’ can currently be measured, let alone modified, by any means must be regarded as entertainment, not science”.

Have another potato chip and a glass of beer? Well, not quite. Later the authors point out:

“Optimum lifestyles, including exercise and a balanced diet along with other proven methods for maintaining good health, contribute to increases in life expectancy by delaying or preventing the occurrence of age-related diseases. There is no scientific evidence, however, to support the claim that these practices increase longevity by modifying the processes of aging.[…] What medical science can tell us is that because aging and death are not programmed into our genes, health and fitness can be enhanced at any age, primarily through the avoidance of behaviors (such as smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, excessive exposure to sun, and obesity) that accelerate the expression of age-related diseases and by the adoption of behaviors (such as exercise and a healthy diet) that take advantage of a physiology that is inherently modifiable,” (Olshansky, 2004)

In a 3,200-word article, 125 words tell us that something works. Optimum lifestyle warrants only 5% of the text because the effects are not really anti-aging. Optimum lifestyle is not an anti-aging strategy because it only increases your life expectancy and delays or prevents chronic diseases. If you think that this sounds more like gobbledygook than science, I don’t blame you.

Recall though, how Janet Belsky described the primary aging process as basic and unavoidable and the secondary aging process as avoidable. If we apply this simple model to what Olshansky and his colleagues are saying, we can see their point. There are underlying processes that cause primary aging. These processes are invisible and no biomarkers exist to measure how much aging they cause. However, it is possible to delay or prevent secondary aging because the functioning of the body—its physiology—is modifiable.

We can quibble about the finer points of the Position Paper, such as the existence of biomarkers for the primary aging process. (See my upcoming review of a study on kidney aging conducted by 16 Stanford scientists.) We can quibble also about the role of behavior in triggering gene expression. (See my upcoming review of research in this field.) But we must recognize that these are quibbles and accept the main thrust of the Position Paper: when you see someone promoting anti-aging, beware of quackery, well-meaning or predatory.

For, anti-aging means adding quality years of life by avoiding or delaying chronic disease.


Belsky, J., 1999. The Psychology of Aging, Third Edition, Brooks/Cole Publishing.

Olshansky, S.J., Hayflick, L., Carnes, B.A. Position Statement on Human Aging, URL:

Position Paper on anti-aging