Is ageing a disease? Redefining the scope of what we treat

What is a disease? It might seem like an easy question but finding a good definition turns out to be quite difficult. Some conditions that used to be considered a disease are not considered a disease anymore. A prime example of that would be homosexuality. Until 1974 it was listed as a disease by the American Psychiatric Association. The reverse exists too. A condition that used to be considered normal is now defined as a disease. One example is osteoporosis which switched from being an unavoidable part of ageing to a pathology in 1994.

According to the WHO, healthy ageing requires maintenance of the capability to enable people to be and do what they have reason to value. Decline in such capability with older age could be caused by deterioration of bodily and cellular function which is often called ‘biological ageing’. Some experts consider this process as a disease. If the definition of a disease is closely looked at, it refers to “damage to an organ, part, structure, or system of the body that it does not function properly”. It is arguable that ageing fits this definition, as it involves the accumulation of cellular and molecular damage which leads to the impairment of normal physiological functioning of cells, tissues and organs which causes age-related diseases (Longevity Reporter).

The benefits of defining ageing as a disease

Have you ever thought of ageing as a disease? Most people will answer no to this question.

But if the question was: Is ageing a concept that must be avoided? A lot of people would answer yes. We are at the age where people are finding ways to stay younger and more functional for longer. However, everyone ages, although it may not be welcomed, it’s a widely accepted universal process; everybody goes through it. So, researchers and scholars had no reason to question whether ageing should be considered a disease now some researchers are challenging the classification (NCBI).

David Gems notes in his research paper that while ageing is universal, this fact does not exclude ageing from being a disease but instead means that ageing is a “special form of disease.” The symptoms of ageing, such as muscle wastage, reduction in bone mass and brain tissue atrophy are all considered diseases. With symptoms like these, there is no denying the fact that ageing is a harmful abnormality of bodily structure and function. What is becoming increasingly clear is that ageing also has specific causes, each of which can be reduced to a cellular and molecular level, and recognizable signs and symptoms (NCBI).

Although there is an obvious negative connotation attached to defining ageing as a disease, there are benefits to this view. A major benefit is that it legitimizes medical efforts to eliminate or reduce the cause of ageing which will result in more money flowing towards this issue in two ways. The first way is in grants for research on the topic. The second way is that health insurance providers fund treatments. Another benefit of defining ageing as a disease is it will shift anti-ageing therapies from the FDA regulations for cosmetic medicine to the more rigorous regulations for disease treatment and prevention. The current health care system treats the symptoms of ageing rather than the cause of ageing. Treating the cause instead of the symptoms could potentially save a lot of money and improve the quality and length of life.

The risks of seeing ageing as a disease

On the other hand, if ageing is considered as a disease, it could be used to undermine elderly peoples’ mental ability and strip them of their rights simply due to their age. For example, voting, transportation, and personal rights for seniors might be at risk. Another disadvantage is that people will no longer have a positive mindset about ageing and might find it more difficult to enjoy the wisdom that is accompanied with old age (Frontiers In).

Although still a controversial topic, there are benefits of defining ageing as a disease that many would argue outweigh the risks. The opportunity to increase healthy life expectancy while generating savings for health care systems around the world is substantial. Nonetheless, there should be no negative connotation with ageing as it may cause more harm within society than good.

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