The aging and anti-aging industries

The aging industry

The anti-aging industry falls under the umbrella of the aging industry or aging enterprise, which comprises all aspects of the commodification of aging including private health care options focused on age-related health concerns, (e.g. private hip and knee replacement surgeries, paid companions for older adults, etc.); retirement homes and communities; travel companies; fashion; and legal services (Estes, 1993). With aging under the domain of biomedicine, the aging industry is afforded endless opportunities for the promotion of new products, where in fact corporate profit, not improved health is the priority (Estes & Binney, 1989).

The anti-aging industry

The term anti-aging is connected to the establishment of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine (A4M) in 1993 (Mykytyn, 2006, 2008, as cited in Hurd Clarke, 2011). The mission statement of this biomedical organization is: “the advancement of technology to detect, prevent, and treat aging related disease and to promote research into methods to retard and optimize the human aging process” (A4M, n.d., as cited in Hurd Clarke, 2011). Although initially the focus of anti-aging medicine was to optimize the aging process through less biomedical means such as diet, exercise and natural supplements (Hurd Clarke, 2011), that quickly shifted to promote an anti-aging commercial and clinical industry that promoted anti-aging products, programs and treatments marketed as ways to prevent, slow or even reverse aging (Binstock, Fishman and Johnson, 2006). And according to Dr. Robert Katz, (one of the co-founders of the A4M), the ultimate purpose of anti-aging medicine is to “never grow old” (Kuczynski, 1998, cited in Hurd Clarke, 2011, p. 74).

While definitions may still vary about the exact nature of the anti-aging industry, Mehlman, et al. (2004) supply a comprehensive definition that consists of five categories of products and services including: “cosmetic treatments and surgery; exercise and therapy; food and beverages; vitamins, minerals, and supplements; and cosmetics and cosmeceuticals” (p. 305). Anti-aging ads and websites fuel the concept of “agelessness” by promoting surgeries, diets, exercise regimes, and various formulas to eliminate signs of aging. Findings from an academic study and analysis of 96 anti-aging websites, combined with 19 in-depth interviews with men and women between the ages of 42 and 61, show that this branch of the anti-aging industry relies on the biomedical model of aging to sell its products by presenting “old age as unacceptable,” but manageable and even avoidable through the consumption of anti-aging products and therapies (Calasanti, et al., 2012).

Amalgamating the belief that aging is a disease that can be “cured,” (de Grey, 2014) with societal attitudes that reflect the “cultural imperialism of youth” (Lewis, 1995), the anti-aging industry promises “age-defying” solutions to the “problem” of old age, suggesting that they can slow (or even stop) the aging process (Calasanti et al, 2012). This perspective is reflected in some genres of popular culture – both film and TV. For example, Altered Carbon (Netflix, 2018-2020), is a sci-fi TV series about being able to buy immortality through wealth – switching your consciousness/mind to another “sleeve” or body. The film In Time (2011), mentioned earlier, suggests that youthful immortality is possible, but again, only with the required amount of wealth to ‘buy time’ and consequently, immortality.

However, categorizing age in this way also further stigmatizes older adults who cannot (or will not) appear to look or act young. But for other individuals, believing in an ageless self feeds the desire to look (and subsequently feel younger) younger than one’s years, providing numerous potential consumers for the cosmetic and plastic surgery industries. Hair dyes and cosmetics for example, mask grey hair and attempt to hide wrinkles, while facelifts purportedly provide older individuals with a new image that is more consistent with how they really feel about themselves (Calasanti, et al., 2012; Hurd Clarke, 2011). This mirrors Sally Chivers’ (2011) research on aging in popular culture and the aging industry, which emphasizes that there is a difference between being old and looking old on screen.

Combined with fear, ageism offers vast opportunities for the anti-aging industry. Pharmaceuticals, cosmetic corporations and plastic surgeons have all benefited from a representation of aging as unattractive and unappealing. The anti-aging model also relies on the concept of “agelessness” and the “mask of aging” Andrews, 1999). The mask of aging theory proposes that we are living in a Cartesian world in which our innermost youthful (and real) selves are split, imprisoned by our aging bodies (Andrews, 1999). The notion of agelessness generates the desire to avoid the designation of “old” and thus evade “exclusion” and maintain status within an ageist society (Calasanti, 2007; Twigg, 2004). Because old age carries negative connotations in contemporary society, appearing young (in physical appearance or in physical performance), can help to create the desired attribute of agelessness (Calasanti, et al., 2012). This perspective is reflected in Hollywood action movies where older male actors are allowed to be old as long as they ‘act young’ creating characters with behaviors and physical abilities usually associated with young actors.

However, scholars such as Leonard Hayflick (2004) have an opposing perspective, calling anti-aging an oxymoron, arguing that “no intervention will slow, stop, or reverse the aging process in humans” (p. 573). Nevertheless, financially well-off baby-boomers reaching retirement age present a prime marketing prospect for the aging and anti aging industries. The anti-aging industry emphasizes reducing the image of aging through the services and products of private cosmetic surgery clinics and pharmaceutical and cosmetic corporations. The aging industry, on the other hand, focuses on ‘upscale lifestyle living‘ which includes senior retirement communities and developments, financial planning and investment services, travel companies specializing in senior tourism, and fashion and media conglomerates.  Unless attitudes change about aging, it would seem that the aging and anti-aging industries are here to stay.