Is Aging a Disease? 

By Rodger Marion

We are born and after awhile we die. We all die. All that varies is the time span between birth and death. No one actually dies from old age. We die from various accidents or pathologies. Then, what are the benefits of increasing the lifespan?

David Gems, in the referenced article below, defines some useful terms to begin our discussion. If we do not die from old age, what do we call it. Gems says, “… biologists use the term ‘senescence’ for the increasing frailty and risk of disease and death that come with aging.” And he calls increasing the lifespan “decelerated aging” and he’s all for it. So am I, in general, but the deeper questions might be: is senescence a disease and why is living longer a good thing?

On the disease question, Gems says, “Consequently, populations accumulate mutations that exert harmful effects in late life, and the sum of these effects is aging. Here evolutionary biology delivers a grim message about the human condition: Aging is essentially a multifactor genetic disease. It differs from other genetic diseases only in that we all inherit it. This universality does not mean that aging is not a disease. Instead, it is a special sort of disease.

Well all that sounds like dancing around the issue but it appears that as we get older things change and our odds go up that we develop something terminal.

OK, so what about the prospect of putting off the inevitable for awhile? Gems says, “It is possible to slow aging in laboratory animals. In fact, it is easy.” He goes on to explain how the life span of nematode worms can be extended tenfold through a simple gene alteration. This logic probably extends to humans as well, but Gems says, “One theory attributes [aging] to an accumulation of molecular damage. Another points to excess biosynthesis … Yet the truth remains unclear.”

So there is a genetic solution in there someplace. Further, Gems encourages a holistic approach to wellness and treatment. He says, “One scientist studies heart disease, another Alzheimer’s disease, another macular degeneration and so on. Yet such ailments are symptoms of a larger underlying syndrome: aging. It is for this reason that there is a law of diminishing returns when it comes to treating diseases of aging. The battle with aging is akin to that between Heracles, the hero of Greek mythology, and the multiheaded Hydra. Each time Heracles hacked off a head, two more would sprout in its place.”

He concludes, “Yet in the long run a more powerful way to protect against age-related disease would be to intervene in the aging process itself. This would provide protection against the full spectrum of age-related illnesses. Returning to our classical illustration, to really defeat the  diseases of late life we need to strike at the heart of the Hydra of senescence: the aging process itself.”

Back to why live longer? Gems ponders the issue but I concluded he was inconclusive. I want to leave the question open for you all to explore. So, here is your assignment: What’s your take on the value of decelerated aging?


Gems, David. Aging: To Treat, or Not to Treat? American Scientist, July-August 2011.

Image from American Scientist: