Between running a fund dedicated to longevity and trying to get more people to consider the prospect of living past 100, it’s safe to say I spend a good deal of time immersed in conversations about our lifespans. Consistently, I’ve noticed that one topic tends to get less attention than it should: aging. People talk a lot about cancer and the promise of new health technologies. But for many, aging is still seen as something that’s inevitable and normal. 

This perspective is slowly changing in the medical community and beyond, though, and it’s yet another reason I’m certain we are on the cusp of a longevity revolution. In this series of articles, I’ve been outlining trends that suggest living past 100 (without sacrificing the quality of life) will be commonplace before we know it. Most recently, I wrote about how disruptive tech companies like Apple and Google will transform healthcare. Recognizing the fact that aging is abnormal and thus a disease that can be prevented and treated is another transformation that should be on your radar screen. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) released the latest version of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), which will be effective as of 2022. In ICD-11, an extension code for “aging” has been added, implying that WHO recognizes aging as a major disease risk factor. ICD codes are the foundation for new drugs and therapies and represent a key step towards overcoming regulatory hurdles around them. This could pave the way for widespread acknowledgment of aging as a disease and an influx of funding related to treatments, if not a cure.

Indeed, everything from arthritis to cancer, heart disease to Parkinson’s, and osteoporosis to Alzheimer’s are manifestations of some type of age-related change. Yet far too often we focus on these diseases while ignoring the role aging plays in their progression—thus missing the forest for the trees. Harvard researcher David Sinclair makes an important point: “We’re generally in denial that, for most of the diseases that we get these days, the root cause is aging. I don’t know 10-year-olds that get Alzheimer’s disease or heart disease.” He also added that ICD 11 “could be one of the most important documents in human history, potentially leading to medicines designed to tackle the world’s most common ailment—aging itself—and one that causes almost all others.”

Something is considered a disease when an abnormal bodily structure or function exists that didn’t arise from physical injury and when that abnormality has a specific cause and recognizable symptoms. Because aging manifests itself in myriad ways, impacting motor, cognitive, and sensory functions and changing everything from body composition to blood pressure, it’s often considered “normal.” Yet numerous scientists have noted that aging is, in fact, a “harmful abnormality of bodily structure and function” with “specific causes, each of which can be reduced to a cellular and molecular level.” Plus, what we consider a disease changes with social context. Homosexuality was once considered a disease, and obesity was recently added as one.

Classifying aging as a disease is important because it means aging could get the same attention and funding that cancer has received in recent years. Calling something a disease “involves the commitment to medical intervention” and is “important to have treatment refunded by health insurance providers,” according to an article published in Frontier in Genetics in 2015 on the topic. To that end, recognizing aging as a disease will stimulate grant-awarding bodies to increase funding for research. It will also lead to a new regulatory attitude, including allowing doctors to prescribe medicines to slow the condition. Before the turn of the 21st century, researchers Callahan and Topinkova wrote: “Not only does aging lend itself to be characterized as a disease, but the advantage of doing so is that, by rejecting the seeming fatalism of the label ‘natural,’ it better legitimizes medical efforts to either eliminate it or get rid of those undesirable conditions associated with it.” 

When the official recognition of aging as a disease by regulatory bodies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) comes, it will be accompanied by a significant amount of brain power and resources being dedicated to curing aging. Currently, the FDA does not see aging as a legitimate target for healthcare. However, the new ICD classification allows companies to conduct clinical trials on age-related conditions. Already, multiple promising therapeutic approaches are ready to move into human clinical trials. In fact, an anti-aging drug that purports to kill senescent cells, cells that have stopped dividing but have not died yet, passed its first human trial in 2019. A few years ago, an FDA test of metformin's potential, a widely used treatment for Type 2 diabetes, in reducing the risk of developing age-related conditions from cancer to cognitive impairment, resonated in the community. The success of these trials could later lead to FDA approval of new drugs to target the disease.

This is just a sampling of the momentum that’s well underway with regard to classifying aging as a disease. As demonstrated here, that classification goes beyond semantics. Recognizing aging as a disease will mean resources will flow towards anti-aging treatments, thus flowing towards the root of all diseases already considered as such. It’s obvious how this will help us all live longer—and it’s especially powerful considering it’s just one of many building blocks towards the 100-year marker that’s being established right now.