Life extension drugs and age grouping

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The Times has an interesting article about how life extension research is getting more respectable. Obviously, really good life extension/anti-aging therapies would be world-changing, but even modestly effective drugs would have a big impact (imagine the effect of having to pay another 5 years of Social Security and Medicare for half the senior citizens in the US).

I want to focus on a rather more trivial effect, though: age grouping in athletic events. Athletic performance is fairly strongly correlated to age, so many amateur sports provide awards in different age categories (typically 5 or 10 year brackets). Even one age bracket can make a real difference: for instance at last year's Ironman World Championship, the 5th place finisher in M35-39 would have won M40-44. Similarly, the 6th place finisher in M40-44 would have won M45-49. The gap between the first place in M35-39 and M45-49 is around 30 minutes (~5%), so if you had a medication which reduced your physiological age by 5-10 years, that would represent a huge advantage. The problem from a doping control perspective is that you can't really ban people from taking a drug which extends their lifespan by 5-10 years, but people on this drug (which certainly won't initially be everyone) are going to have a big advantage over their competitors, who aren't on the drug. It will be interesting to see how the doping control regime responds to this sort of development (assuming it actually happens).


The key question in these situations is always, "what are the side effects?". Vitamins, for example, can be considered life-extension/performance-enhancing drugs, since one's life is considerably shorter and less athletically capable if one doesn't ingest them in one form or another. But because they have no side effects at effective doses, everyone "takes" them (either through food, or, if they don't get enough that way, via supplements). Hence there's no need to ban their use by athletes--it's simply assumed that all competitors use them.

The problem shows up when performance-enhancing drugs have serious side effects. In that case, athletes are faced with a choice between preserving their health and safety and improving their performance. Since athletic organizations generally want to be seen to be promoting health, fitness and general positive values, they'd rather not be seen giving their participants an implicit incentive to damage their health for personal gain.

My intuition tells me that the "Blade Runner effect" (inverse relationship between performance and longevity) would apply to almost all performance-enhancing or life-extension drugs, for a simple reason: if a chemical were able to enhance athleticism or longevity without damaging the other, then the resulting survival/reproductive advantage would likely have already caused naturally occurring levels of some variant of it to be at the optimal level in modern humans. An interesting exception is those chemicals that affect fertility, since reduced fertility is such a powerful evolutionary disadvantage that it can counterbalance the advantage of just about any athletic or longevity improvement. I suspect it's no coincidence that the most popular and widely-used performance-enhancing drug reduces fertility.

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