Aging: Humanity Faces a Major Problem

The cost of aging is enormous, far greater than any other single cause of pain, suffering, and death. Approximately two thirds of all deaths are due to aging and its consequences: more than 100,000 lives are lost to aging each and every day. These are rarely pleasant or easy ends. Aging progressively raises the chance of suffering a range of fatal or disabling medical conditions: cardiovascular disease, amyloidosis, dementia, and many others. Hundreds of millions of people live with ever worsening chronic pain, disability, and suffering as a result of aging.

The overwhelming majority of all medical expenditure goes towards treating the consequences of aging or providing palliative care for the aged. Further, there is an enormous opportunity cost to aging: those who become frail and unable to work might have otherwise gone on to continue earning and creating value. The amounts involved are staggering: the cost of the most common chronic medical conditions in the US alone amounts to ~$280 billion in expenditures and ~$1 trillion in lost productivity each and every year. The overwhelming majority of that is due to aging.

Yet it remains unusual for anyone to point out that this is happening, or that we need to address it by striking at the root cause of all this pain, suffering, death, and loss:

Humanity faces a major problem (what I refer to here simply as the Problem) this century. And given the nature of the Problem it will most likely be a significant problem for all future generations as well, unless we seriously tackle this problem. The Problem is one of the most significant problems we have ever faced. Sadly not very many people realize how big of a problem the Problem is, and few believe there is anything we can do to remedy the Problem. Thus people do not pressure their governments to take action to address the Problem.

There is an extremely strong scientific consensus concerning the likelihood that the Problem will impose unprecedented levels of suffering, disease and disability on people in both rich and poor countries. Indeed this is a certainty if we do nothing to prevent the Problem. Furthermore, the Problem threatens to undermine the economic prosperity of all nations, rich and poor alike. So if you hadn't yet guessed it, the Problem is global aging. Civilization has become so successful at preventing early and mid-life mortality - thanks to public health measures like the sanitation revolution, immunizations, antibiotics, changes in behaviour and increases in material prosperity - that our populations now age.

Some claim we should just focus on "adaptation" to minimize the harms of the Problem. Those taking this position doubt we can do anything to directly alter the certainty and severity of the problem. And yet many of the scientists with expertise on the nature of the Problem believe we can directly manipulate the factors responsible for the Problem. Numerous scientific experiments have demonstrated that the biological processes involved in senescence (aging) can be modulated, thus slowing down the rate of molecular and cellular decline.

Given the rapid rise of chronic disease that has already occurred, and will dramatically rise this century as populations age, what can be done? The strategy of adaptation is one that simply takes the biology of aging we have inherited from our species life and evolutionary history as a given, and looks for ways to minimize the harmful effects of aging. So promoting exercise, or tackling specific diseases of aging by funding medical research on cancer or Alzheimer's disease, or redesigning cities to better promote the mobility of aging populations.

A more ambitious and rational strategy would be to aspire to modulate aging itself. Retarding human aging could dramatically increase the health span and reduce the period of time humans will suffer chronic disease. Such an intervention could be something all future generations benefit from as well. There are hardly any global problems as pressing and significant as tackling aging is today.



Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. New comments can be edited for a few minutes following submission. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

Note that there is a comment feed for those who like to keep up with conversations.