Talking Point: Is Aging a Disease?

The Gerontology Research Group mailing list is presently hosting a healthy discussion on the question of whether or not aging is a disease - no doubt touched off by this article in the UK press:

"If aging is seen as a disease, it changes how we respond to it. For example, it becomes the duty of doctors to treat it," said David Gems, a biogerontologist who spoke at a conference on aging in London last week called "Turning Back the Clock."

At the moment, drug companies and scientists keen to develop their research on aging into tangible results are hampered by regulators in the United States and Europe who will license medicines only for specific diseases, not for something as general as aging.

"Because aging is not viewed as a disease, the whole process of bringing drugs to market can't be applied to drugs that treat aging. This creates a disincentive to pharmaceutical companies to develop drugs to treat it," said Gems.

As you might already know, whether or not aging is called a disease has very little to do with words and definitions, and a great deal to do with money and regulation. Unelected officials of organizations like the FDA in the United States cause untold harm to progress in medical science by (a) placing huge and unnecessary burdens upon research and development, and (b) forbidding outright commercial application for any purpose or disease that is not in their list. It can take a decade - and millions of dollars in the formalized bribery known as lobbying - for a new discovery, new classification, or new form of therapy to be recognized by regulators. Or even longer, as is the case for aging.

A world without the FDA would be a far better place, in which progress was faster and the breadth of medical development far greater. The death toll of those who wait in vain for new and more effective therapies would be greatly reduced, and the engines of free market competition turned to building new medical miracles. But sadly we do not live in that world - it lies somewhere beyond the next revolution, or perhaps beyond the next great open frontier.


I think the main problem is just that people don't fundamentally believe that aging can be reversed - and no wonder, since the experience of aging lies at the heart of all human culture. The notion that the body is just a machine like any other hasn't really taken hold, because it is obscured by complexity.

So I think it's going to take one real example of rejuvenation therapy working in humans to get the ball rolling. Once people realize what's possible, however, I think the floodgates will open.

Posted by: William Nelson at May 24th, 2010 10:40 AM

It's easy enough to get around government regulations. People get illegal drugs or commit doctor assisted suicide by traveling to another country.
The main obstacle is that it's too risky for investors -- it will take 20 to 25 years to have a return on anti-aging therapy and capitalists want a quick profit. Are investors more afraid of the government than they are afraid of death? Most likely they are more afraid of losing their investment then they are afraid of government or death.
Stem cell therapy has a potential in about 10 years -- and it has multiple applications -- it can be applied against diseases and against disorders of aging. And there are more investors in stem cells than in longevity medicine.

Posted by: nikki at May 25th, 2010 7:05 PM

It's true that FDA is now more an obstacle. It won't let personalized solutions go through approval, because it was designed to approve drugs like aspirin, but not the ones for just 100 000 or even 10 people.
Maybe when FDA was reformed, reorganized, then it would be much easier to get life extension therapies to the market.

Posted by: Maria Konovalenko at May 31st, 2010 7:51 AM

yaa i'm doing research on aging about two years and my idea is that reverse aging is possible...

Posted by: aqil zidan at July 16th, 2012 10:31 PM

Yeah, sure, let's return to a world in which pharmaceutical companies can sell whatever they want, with no safety testing, and just count on "the free market" to keep them honest. That's what the world really needs. We don't need rigorous safety testing when we can just use the customers as guinea pigs. If the medicine kills them, they won't buy it anymore and the company will go out of business! The free market at work! We definitely need more Elixir Sulfanilamides marketed in the backs of magazines.

A world without the FDA would be a far worse place, unless of course you're in the business of selling quack remedies.

Posted by: Ann at September 20th, 2012 6:33 AM

Well Ann, I'll take my chances as a guinea pig with life extension therapies being available even if less safe versus no possibility of these things being available.

Posted by: JA at September 22nd, 2012 9:59 AM

More and more research is showing that how you live your life (how much and what kind of nutrients) plays a much bigger role in how well we age. If we think we can eat what ever we like and sit on the couch and age well we are kidding ourselves. There are programs that are looking into the longevity gene as it's being called but I believe most of your healthy older population have lived active lives of moderation.
I also believe that a life lived to 90 or 100 years with good health beats a life filled with medical issues of 150 years. We all die, we make the day to day decisions on our quality of life and life is what you put in to it. There are no easy fixes that have lasting value.

Posted by: Chuck at April 9th, 2015 3:56 PM

Many people repeat the mantra "death is a part of life". But that's not true. Death is the end of life. There is no good explanation as to what mechanism drove nature to plot the birth and maturity of living things only to allow then to decay from that point till death. Life should be indefinite barring accident. The equilibrium of maturity seems in line with natural principles of balance.I for one subscribe to the idea that ageing is a negative mutation. Or it was something in that damn "fruit".

Posted by: Jay at April 25th, 2015 8:05 PM
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