It’s kind of a Wild West,” Alyson D. Harvey ’25 says, referring to the frontier of aging research. She’s become intimately familiar with the topic as one of the co-founders of the Aging Initiative at Harvard, a group that, according to their website, “promotes engagement in the aging field.”
What exactly is this field of research, and how does one engage with it? For Harvey, the goal of the Aging Initiative at Harvard is to generate interest and awareness of aging as an issue among young people.
“Because of the ability of our social and economic structures to support our elderly population, young people haven’t had to face the aging problem and all of its social and financial implications as early on as we’'re going to have to now,” Harvey says.
She and her co-founders plan to create aging-related projects and opportunities for interested students from different backgrounds and disciplines, whether they are approaching the topic with specialties in biomedical research, caregiving, or policy. The undergraduate board envisions an interdisciplinary approach to their club, one that intersects their varied entry points to the field of aging.
“We are all very personally invested in this problem in very diverse ways,” says Harvey, who has a longtime interest in aging research. “The opportunity just arose for me to do molecular biological research in the aging field, so that’s how I became acquainted with it.”
Harvey’s co-founder, Olivia C. Wenzel ’24, became invested in the field via her work with the Phillips Brooks House Association’s Elderly 1-2-1 program, which fosters friendship between undergraduates and senior citizens. Another co-founder, Shikoh Misu Hirabayashi ’24, became interested in the field due to his focus on aging policies in Japan.
The board’s varied approaches delineate between two sides of aging research: one focused on improving health and lifespans, and one focused on making social policy that supports the elderly. Harvey is cognizant of the implications of the aging research that she carries out, noting a need to simultaneously improve lifespans, the length of human life, but also healthspans, the period of life where humans are in reasonable health.
“You can actually inadvertently create technologies that are just expanding life spans without extending health spans,” Harvey says. “Even if you could propose that they might extend health spans, there’s a lot of limitations there. And so it’s really important that we place a lot, maybe even more, emphasis on developing the social structures to support potentially what we have now.”
The field of aging research, however, is mired in debate. The chief concern is how anti-aging plays a role in aging research. Aging research helps people age more gracefully as lifespans increase globally, but in anti-aging research, which looks into extending the human lifespan, a slew of other problems arise.
Some of these problems are practical in nature, concerning issues like the prospect of overpopulation and an increase in the retirement age. Other concerns are directed at the ethical questions. If access to aging interventions costs exorbitant amounts of money, will existing global health inequalities be exacerbated? How about the rise of anti-aging products, a now multi-billion dollar industry that has little scientific basis, that seeks to extend the physical characteristics of youth?
“That’s a debate I’m not knowledgeable about, nor am I going to enter into it,” Arthur M. Kleinman, one of the Aging Initiative’s faculty adviseors who researches aging in China, says about the ethical questions surrounding anti-aging.
Kleinman embraces a more practical approach towards the aging problem.
“I’m very supportive of the Club,” Kleinman says, citing demographic shifts and rapidly aging populations as crucial issues that must be addressed.
In China, “today, for every retiree, there’s somewhere around four workers, maybe three and a half,” Kleinman says about his research on China’s aging population. “In 2050, there’ll be one and a half workers for every retiree. So how can you keep the same social security system and retiree system? And that’s also going to be an issue for the United States and for Europe.”
Harvey echoes Kleinman’s sentiments. The Aging Initiative hopes to fight misinformation and manipulation in the anti-aging industry through further research and publicity. “The more people who are actually researching this issue, the less of a Wild West it will become, and the more concrete conclusions we can have that can, in turn, clarify that a lot of these supplements and diets and all this bullshit that is out on the market,” she says.
The Aging Initiative also hopes to facilitate general discussion through social events and programs. For example, Harvey and her co-founders plan to implement the “Generations over Dinner” program, where a group of people, spanning from teenagers to the elderly, sit down and converse about life over a meal.
“I think that’s really important to just hear those perspectives with some regularity as a young person,” she says.