Hair conditioners and immortality

I’m not a fan of cosmetic products whatsoever. The most I use is a bar of soap, a bottle of shampoo, a smaller bottle of coconut oil and the occasional earbud. Maybe a bottle of deodorant when I’ve been out in the sun overlong. But recently, when I made a trip to Delhi, more than one person noticed that I don’t moisturise and suggested that I do. I wasn’t embarrassed because my anti-cosmetics line is, or was, one of principle: they’re unnecessary products of the consumerist culture. Look no further than the hair conditioner: there’s no reason shampoos can’t be chemically engineered to condition one’s hair as well – but no. Two products means double the revenue, especially if they can be marketed and sold together.

However, the advice about moisturising struck me. While it is redundant in Chennai (especially for me; I grew up in the city and have skin used to high humidity and naturally oily hair), moisturisers are almost mandatory to have healthy skin in Delhi. The national capital has dry weather all year round except during the monsoon spell, around July. During summers, hot, dry winds blow through the city, transforming it into a Bessemer converter. During winters, cold, dry winds move like sludge through the air, cracking skin everywhere in minutes. So from this perspective, what could be overkill in Chennai is a necessity in Delhi.

This in turn recalls a more important and consequential distinction that has occasionally surfaced in anti-vaccination propaganda, among other contexts. Humans live much longer today than they did, say, 500 years ago because we invented antibiotics in the intervening period – and we as a species accomplish more in a single generation today than we did ever before in history as a result. But are antibiotics cosmetic? The answer would be a ready ‘no’ if humans had some sort of moral obligation to live longer. But do we?

What will simplify this consideration is acknowledging that the obligation we do have is to improve the quality of life. Thanks to antibiotic prescriptions, we spend fewer hours in a lifetime tending to diseases, and we lose fewer years to disabilities. However, not all kinds/forms of medication are dedicated to making us live better lives. For example, a study published in March 2017 by researchers from the University of New South Wales announced the discovery of a cellular mechanism the manipulation of which slowed down, and even eliminated, ageing in mice. The researchers said that human trials are set to begin later this year. Notwithstanding any negative outcomes during the trials, will the introduction of an anti-ageing drug in the market be equivalent to the introduction of a new hair conditioner? In other words, the question is whether increased human lifespan is equivalent to, or even a subset of, a better quality of life.

The UNSW team isn’t alone in its pursuit. While it had found a way to improve cells’ ability to repair their DNA in case of damage, a research group from the Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, Minnesota, claimed in 2016 that they could make mice live longer by causing such problem cells to self-destruct. Peter de Kezier, a scientist at the Erasmus University Medical Centre, the Netherlands, had told The Guardian at the time: “Maybe when you get to 65 you’ll go every five years for your anti-senescence shot in the clinic. You’ll go for your rejuvenation shot.”

In the same year, a group from the Salk Institute in California announced that it had slowed ageing in mice by 30% by replacing the problem cells with pluripotent stem cells. The group’s leader Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte had said, “We believe that this approach will not lead to immortality. There are probably still limits that we will face in terms of complete reversal of ageing. Our focus is not only extension of lifespan but most importantly health-span.” I assume by ‘health-span’ he means the number of years lived in good health – and this is interesting.

All these anti-ageing studies have one thing in common: they started out trying to eliminate age-related diseases, and now are pursuing anti-ageing therapies as a way to eliminate those diseases. So should such therapies become commonplace, they will improve the quality of life by making us less susceptible to those diseases. But this is not the same as walking into a clinic once every five years for an anti-senescence shot or a rejuvenation shot just to live longer. The latter feels less principled, probably because it will shape up to be more of an enhancement of the quantity of life than of the quality of life. The ones having lived for longer as a result will also have been those who could afford all those shots.

In other words, it sounds just like hair conditioner.

Featured image credit: tookapic/pixabay.

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