Towards a sociology of ‘anti-ageing’

Written by Alan Petersen, School of Social Sciences, Monash University: Over the last two decades, the term ‘anti-ageing’ has gained considerable currency. There is a huge and burgeoning number of interventions labelled as ‘anti-ageing’ (or the more common Americanised spelling ‘anti-aging’) advertised online. The term is also widely used ‘off line’, with specialist clinics labelled as such together with products found in chemists, supermarkets and other retail outlets. Readers may remember that in 2013 the Australian Crime Commission identified ‘anti-ageing clinics’ as one source for peptides, hormones and performance- and image-enhancing (PIEDs) drugs used by athletes (ACC, 2013).

Given this, there has been surprisingly little sociological analysis of the concept of anti-ageing and of the operations of the market of ‘anti-ageing treatments’. There have been sociological studies on the institutions and practices of ‘anti-ageing medicine’—a largely US innovation—and ‘anti-ageing science’ (e.g. Vincent, 2006; Fishman et al., 2010; Mykytyn, 2008, 2010); however, most work is limited by being focused on particular institutions, products or practices, having a strong US bias, and predating the recent rapid digitalisation that is reshaping marketing practices.

For the last few years I’ve led an ARC funded project on the Australian ‘anti-ageing treatment’ market, in collaboration with Christine Parker, a legal scholar at University of Melbourne, and Casimir MacGregor, an anthropologist who, until recently, worked at Monash University[1]. This work builds on my earlier research in this field (Petersen and Seear, 2009), and encompasses all products marketed as ‘anti-ageing’/‘anti-aging’. This market, we have discovered, is highly diverse, including diets and dietary supplements (e.g. ‘nutraceuticals’ and ‘superfoods’), cosmetic treatments (including ‘cosmeceuticals’), hormone treatments, and regenerative therapies. Various surgical procedures, such as ‘tummy tuck’, breast augmentation, botox injections, and laser hair removal have also been tagged ‘anti-ageing’, although these are not the primary focus of our current research.

‘Anti-ageing treatments’ constitute a niche market within a massive body modification industry that is focused on reshaping, enhancing and perfecting the physical body in line with an idealised conception of health, functioning and beauty (in this case, ‘youthfulness’) (Petersen, 2007). As with many if not most other contemporary forms of body modification (and associated commodification), ‘anti-ageing’ interventions are implicitly discriminatory in that they involve assessments of normality/abnormality and reinforce stereotypes. The anti-ageing treatment market is underpinned by an assumption that ageing is a (terminal) disease that can be ‘treated’ and even eventually ‘cured’ by technological means. (There is also a parallel market of longevity research and interventions—which promises greatly extended life spans—but this will need to be the subject of another paper.) Those exhibiting the physical signs of ageing are seen to possess biologically failed bodies that require biomedical remediation. Challenging these assumptions should be integral to an anti-ageist political agenda.

On consumer rights grounds alone, the marketing claims of ‘anti-ageing treatments’ should be questioned. Many products and services labelled as ‘anti-ageing’ have not been proven to achieve what is claimed or (mostly) implied – namely to delay ageing or reverse or mask the effects of ageing – and hence constitute false advertising. Advertising reinforces the normalisation of ‘anti-ageing treatment’, which may lead people to undertake interventions that are likely to be of no value and may result in physical harm. At best, undertaking ‘anti-ageing treatments’ is in the majority of cases a waste of money, although it could be argued that consumers may benefit from a placebo effect. Regulators have a role to play in regulating this market, but current responses are inadequate in the context of direct-to-consumer advertising. The dominant approach has been ‘buyer beware’. But is this sufficient where products and services are advertised for what they promise rather than what they deliver, and which rely on an economy of hope?

According to a 2013 estimate provided by a market research company, the anti-ageing market may be worth nearly $US200 billion dollars by 2019 (Transparency Market Research, 2015). These estimates are part of the hype and promissory discourse that surround this and other areas of biotechnology and that underpin ‘the bio-economy’ (Petersen and Krisjansen, 2015). The ‘anti-ageing’ industry comprises many aspects and actors, including scientists, clinicians, pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries, and professional and quasi-professional groups, such as the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine (A4M) and other national equivalents. These anti-ageing medical associations host annual conferences that are big business in their own right and provide the opportunity to promote a diverse arrange of products, services, and devices. ‘Anti-ageing treatments’ are marketed to the relatively affluent ‘baby boomers’ whom, it is assumed, are used to ‘having it all’ and are resistant to the notion of growing old.

Sociologists can contribute a great deal to our understanding of ‘anti-ageing’ and the ‘anti-ageing treatment’ phenomenon. The concept of anti-ageing, suggesting as it does that it is possible and indeed desirable to ‘turn back the biological clock’ through technological means, raises many questions. These include: who benefits from the promotion of the idea of anti-ageing, and who is (potentially) disadvantaged? To what extent does the discourse of anti-ageing shape views on the body, health and medicine? In what ways does the discourse of anti-ageing reinforce ageism and sexism (given that some treatments, such as cosmetic products, are targeted to particular genders)? Secondly, what institutions, practices and actors are involved in the ‘anti-ageing treatment’ industry? What are the implications of the growth of the ‘anti-ageing treatment’ market for the allocation of healthcare resources – might such growth result in public resources being diverted from other, pressing areas of need? And, what can be learnt from study of this area about perceptions of bioscience and biotechnology – in particular, the role of promise, hope and expectation in shaping responses to new technologies?

References

Australian Crime Commission (2013) Organised Crime and Drugs in Sport. New Generation Performance and Image Enhancing Drugs and Organised Criminal Involvement in their use in Professional Sport. Australian Crime Commission: Canberra.

Fishman, J. R., R. A. Settersten Jr, and M. A. Flatt (2010) ‘In The Vanguard Of Biomedicine? The Curious And Contradictory Case Of Anti-Ageing Medicine’, Sociology of Health & Illness 32(2): 197–210.

Mykytyn, C. E. (2008) ‘Medicalizing The Optimal: Anti-Aging Medicine And The Quandary Of Intervention’, Journal of Aging Studies, 22(4): 313–321.

Mykytyn, C. E. (2010) ‘A History Of The Future: The Emergence Of Contemporary Anti-Ageing Medicine’, Sociology of Health and Illness, 32(2): 181–196.

Petersen, A. (2007) The Body in Question: A Sociocultural Approach. Routledge: London and New York.

Petersen, A. and Krisjansen, I. (2015) ‘Assembling “The Bioeconomy”: Exploiting The Power Of The Promissory Life Sciences’, Journal of Sociology, 51(1): 28–46.

Petersen, A., and K. Seear (2009) ‘In Search Of Immortality: The Political Economy Of Anti-Ageing Medicine’, Medicine Studies 1(3): 267–79.

Transparency Market Research (2015) ‘Global anti-aging market boosted by baby boomer population nearing retirement; market to be worth US$191.7 billion in 2019’. Posted August 31, 2015. http://www.transparencymarketresearch.com/pressrelease/anti-aging-market.htm (Accessed 16 June 2016)

Vincent, J. (2006) ‘Ageing Contested: Anti-Ageing Science And The Cultural Construction Of Old Age’, Sociology 40(4): 681–98.

[1] ‘A sociological analysis of the anti-ageing treatment market: the dynamics of expectations’ DP140100484

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