The Theology and Ethics of Aging
A Conversation with Dr. Ernst von Schwarz
On October 21, the LMU Bioethics Institute graciously welcomed renowned cardiologist and theologian Dr. Ernst von Schwarz. Dr. von Schwarz focused his remarks on the “The Ethics of Aging.” In a day and time when cosmetic medical procedures are becoming more common and advanced, skin is not the only place anti-aging and regenerative medicine comes into play. Dr. Schwarz’s extensive professional credentials and professional background qualify him to be not just a skilled cardiovascular surgeon, but also knowledgeable about health care ethics.
Our discussion kicked off with an introduction into a medical technology that is still in its early stages but with much potential for clinical application: stem cells. While many may know or understand the concept behind stem cells, Dr. von Schwarz gave even more insight into the stages and whereabouts of these cells in the medical world today. Drawing upon his own clinical research using mice, Dr. von Schwarz advocates for the therapeutic benefits and abilities of stem cells. Their pluripotency, that is their ability to develop into any kind of somatic cell, provides such a broader spectrum of capability and potential when it comes to the future of medicine and treatment. The issue with doctors and medical practices today, according to Dr. von Schwarz, is that what was once a practice of helping people get better has now become an assembly-line way of working and moving through patients. Limitations and stricter guidelines now have placed medical staff in a position where their mode of work is mechanical, and medical care now amounts to just an effort to “fix” them in the moment rather than work preventatively to treat and reverse problems. Dr. von Schwarz argued that if stem cell therapies were to be eventually approved by the FDA, the results would be incredible. Stem cell use is currently very expensive, and limited. However, the use of stem cells not only would allow doctors to help patients in ways that are not so mechanical, but also to slow the natural aging process and thus expand both health and life-spans.
This potential regenerative use of stem cell therapies naturally leads to a focus on anti-aging. First, it should be noted that that Dr. von Schwarz is not against natural aging. Rather, he maintains aging is a natural part of life. Nevertheless, a substantial amount of individuals face advanced aging, and this is where lots of social and medical perspectives combined with the ethics of age renewal come into discussion. Dr. von Schwarz expressed how aging is a natural and necessary process. As such there will not be biological immortality.
However, life extension is possible. In the medical world, age presents an array of problems. First, age is the number one factor for mortality. More people die from advanced aging than any other issue or disease. It is such an issue that many doctors now consider advanced aging in itself to be a disease as it causes the body to degenerate, starting from muscles and joints and following all the way up to heart failure and cognitive or mental deterioration.
While aging is not a process that can be stopped, mitigating its effects and extending one’s life is absolutely a realistic ability. In the world today, we are already seeing a steady increase in life expectancy. Specifically in the cardiovascular world, this extension of life has been attributed to increased treatment options and faster response times by medical professionals. But this life extension is also seen in other places due to advancements in technology, recognition of different health factors, and more. Dr. von Schwarz expressed how the common factors like nutrition, active lifestyle , and socializing all contribute to longer life-spans.
Dr. von Schwarz wants his patients and people to not just live longer, but also better. He does not believe that pills or even stem cells alone will factor into life extension and age renewal, but rather a holistic approach and alteration to lifestyle is also critical. While issues with anti-aging lie within limitations to stem cells and enough research on the topic itself, medical anti-aging would allow less frailty in individuals which would reduce medical costs and increase lifespan.
Dr. Ernst von Schwarz's discussion was thought- provoking and provided important insights into the present and future use of stem cell therapies for regenerative purposes. His engaging disposition and his depth of knowledge made it an incredible experience to meet and talk with him. We hope to be meeting with Dr. Ernst von Schwarz again and continue to dive into the ethics of aging.
This article was written by Isabella Grigorian and edited by Dr. Nicholas Brown. Isabella is an undergraduate intern in the Bioethics Institute.