Is Aging a Disease or a Natural Process?
Mystery, stigma, and dreams of immortality fuel a debate that just won’t die
Philosophers have argued for millennia whether aging is a natural process or a disease to be cured. The debate — gaining fresh vigor in recent years with advances in understanding disease causes even while science still can’t explain exactly why or how we age — is full of genuine scientific disagreement, laced with idealistic dreams of immortality, and loaded with ethical concerns.
Biological aging is not just a source, but the source of many debilitating and deadly diseases, argues the Healthy Life Extension Society, led by Sven Bulterijs, a postgraduate researcher who studies the biology of aging at the University of Ghent in Belgium. “The only way to prevent these illnesses linked to aging is to attack the principal cause — aging itself,” the group contends. “It is time to start working toward solutions to this universal human tragedy.”
Those bold assertions, particularly viewing aging as a tragedy, are not shared by the majority of aging experts.
“Aging is a natural part of life for those who are lucky enough to live a long time,” says Sharona Hoffman, JD, a professor of law and bioethics at Case Western Reserve University and author of the book, Aging With a Plan: How a Little Thought Today Can Vastly Improve Your Tomorrow. “Aging should not be considered a disease in and of itself.”
The National Institute on Aging concurs, in what serves as an official scientific stance on the issue, a nuanced view that emphasizes the complex, two-way relationship between aging and illness: “Aging is not, in and of itself, a disease. However, aging is the major risk factor for developing many major chronic diseases. Furthermore, many diseases appear to accelerate the aging process — which is manifested as declines in functionality and reduced quality of life.”
What is disease, anyway?
Among the many loose ends driving this debate is the startling fact that there is no universal, formal medical description for the word “disease.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines “health” as “a state of complete…