Ilia Stambler, historian of our longevity science community, is in illustrious company in the author list for this open access position paper. Regular readers will recall that the World Health Organization (WHO) is among the most conservative and hidebound of institutions when it comes to the development of means to treat aging. The WHO positions on aging studiously avoid any mention of the idea that aging can be changed at all through medical science. This is somewhere between ridiculous and outrageous, given what is going on in the labs and clinical development today. More activist members of the scientific community have, accordingly, berated and advocated by turn in journal articles these past few years.
Should a broken system be changed from within, or should it be rejected entirely and worked around? In my experience, the latter approach is the one more likely to produce change, but as a general rule far more effort goes towards the first. We can speculate as why this might be the case. Perhaps because those people most able to identify and articulate the problem in question tend to be experienced with, embedded in, and thus invested in, the broken system. It is comparatively rare for outsiders to appear with sufficient knowledge to build viable alternatives; matters must usually decline for a long time before that happens. That is certainly happening elsewhere in the scientific and medical communities, but not yet here.
It can be confidently stated that global population aging is both the greatest success of global public health efforts of the past, as well as the greatest challenge for the further global public health efforts of the future. Over the past decades, life expectancy at birth has increased globally. Considering that both rising longevity and population aging are likely demographic events in the coming decades, by 2050 the proportion of people over 60 years is expected to double from about 13% to nearly 25%, which, in absolute terms, means an increase from 962 million to 2.1 billion people. Rising longevity during the last 150 years is a testament to human ingenuity, and there is reason to believe further advances are possible.
According to World Health Organization's data, "Noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) kill 40 million people each year, equivalent to 70% of all deaths globally. Cardiovascular diseases account for most NCD deaths. Each year, 15 million people die from a NCD between the ages of 30 and 69 years; over 80% of these premature deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries." In other words, of the 57 million deaths in the world each year, nearly 50% occur due to chronic non-communicable diseases in the world's oldest population (70+), and over 60% in the older population (60+), making the health of older persons the worst and most urgent global health problem.
In view of the urgency of the problem, it seems highly surprising that in the forthcoming draft 13th General Programme of Work of the World Health Organization for 2019-2023 the issue of aging and aging-related ill health is excluded completely! Beside a cursory mention of the word "aging," this work program does not contain any specific objectives, deliverables, and actions to improve the health of the aged. This means that, through 2023, according to this document, the World Health Organization is not obliged to provide any services to care for the health of older persons or to improve their health, not to mention conduct any research and development to create new therapies and technologies for improving the health of the aged. The issues of aged health are not in the WHO work program!
How can this exclusion coexist with the mission of WHO's division on Ageing and Life Course? How can it coexist with the recently adopted WHO's Global Strategy and Action Plan on Ageing and Health (GSAP) for 2016-2020, endorsed by all the WHO member states? According to its goal statement, the GSAP must prepare for the "Decade of Healthy Ageing from 2020 to 2030" which was also announced by WHO. The coordination and consultation between various arms and branches of the WHO must improve. The developers of the WHO Work Program must avail of the world expertise on ageing health, within the WHO and externally, to develop an effective, strategically-minded and inclusive global health program. We also urge the readers to make your voice heard, advocate and increase publicity about the need to include and implement concrete measures to improve aging health, including research and development for healthy longevity, as a priority in the WHO work program.