Ageing as a disease: The WHO considers attacking The Dragon TyrantsteemCreated with Sketch.

in #steemstem2 years ago (edited)

If you found out you were going to die tomorrow, would you ask for one more day?

Image credit: Pixabay

The World Health Organisation (WHO) this week signalled their openness to treating the ageing process as a disease in and of itself1. On the surface, this move may seem like the continuing over-medicalisation of pretty much the entire human condition 2, however, targeting the ageing process more directly could prevent unnecessary suffering on a scale far beyond what we've previously thought possible.

Ageing is a major risk factor for a number of diseases 3. The older we get, the harder it becomes to the avoid developing a given disease. Alzheimer’s, strokes, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancers all become far more likely as age increases. The WHO now suggest the use of a new disease categorisation: ‘Age-related’. Which they defined as:

“Caused by pathological processes which persistently lead to the loss of organism's adaptation and progress in older ages”

This flips the established order of things and points the finger at age itself, and suggests that we could potentially solve for this problem instead.

Vis Hub’s Treemaps of the global burden of disease

Treemaps are amazing, and as soon as you learn to read them, they are probably one of the most instantly intuitive ways to view the current state of our global burden of disease.

Example of a tree map. Image credit Wikimedia

The visualisations over at Vis Hub are some of the most useful tool I’ve ever used to teach global health. Sadly, they are protected under copyright so I’m going to ask you to do something scary. Click on a link.

This -> Link <-

Which will take you to the interactive Treemap for global burden of disease.

This visualisation has three elements to it:

Size of box = % of the world that suffers and dies due to named cause (measured in disability adjusted life years).

Blue = Non-Communicable diseases, Red = Communicable, maternal, neonatal, and nutritional diseases, Green = Injuries

Strength of colour = Annual change in rate of DALY’s lost. Darker colours indicate that DALY's lost from this cause have increased, lighter colours indicate that DALY's lost from this cause have decreased. Its currently set to compare between 1990 and 2016 (the latest year of avaliable data). I suggest you change it to 2000-2016. That's when the world really got its act together.

You can hover over each box with you mouse to get more information on each cause, and if you are anything like me you’ll lose hours of your day playing around with the different world regions/countries and stats.

The fact that, when you look at the global statistics, half of this visualisation is blue and the red is mostly light red is a testament to the amazing progress we have made as a species over the last 20 years.

We can however do better. I personally see the ultimate long-term goal of health care as a series of problems on our global to-do list.

Pick any one of the causes of suffering and there are currently countless people devoting their lives to mitigate the effects felt by that particular callous devourer of human life. Notice the absence of small pox and polio on this graph, a similar absence is my desire for all of the years lost to all of these terrible inflictions, until it’s possible for me to click through the stats on this page seeing only one big green box that says this:

Image created for post

One of the quickest ways of achieving this is find the commonalities and focus on addressing these. For the red it means solving for poverty, sanitation and basic health care. For the blue it might meaning solving for ageing.

I realise that curing aging is controversial view to some. That somehow this view of heath care goes against the natural order of things. That suffering and a short life is part of the what makes a human life so rich and full. A view that I, personal, disagree with.

However, this process is already in motion and we’ve been moving down this path for a while now. Every time a worried relative asks a doctor "Is there anything you can do? we push back the boundaries of what we consider the normal length of a human life by a little bit more.

The fable of the dragon tyrants

Nick Bostrom’s Fable of the dragon tyrant 4 asks what if we decided to decouple death from the aging process? What would it take for us to come to that decision?

Here it is in video form from the wonderful CGP Gray

This is how I like to see the ageing problem. Death from old age is a concept that we created that is detached from the realities of our biology. We have not yet reached the stage where death occurs merely due to the number of years we have been on this earth. As we find solutions to the causes of death and suffering we will keep pushing back what we think of as the ‘normal’ age to live to.

My only ask is that we move forward as a species and leave no one behind. This will likely mean focusing on many of the red boxes first.

About me

My name is Richard, I blog under the name of @nonzerosum. I’m a PhD student at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. I write mostly on Global Health, Effective Altruism and The Psychology of Vaccine Hesitancy. If you’d like to read more on these topics in the future follow me here on steemit or on twitter @RichClarkePsy.

Also I’m in the process of building up my Steem basic income shares so I’ve decide to sponsor a share a week to someone that engages in the comments below. I’ve no real system for this but get stuck in and I'll likely sponsor you in at some point.


[1] The Lancet: Editorial - Opening the door to treating ageing as a disease](

[4] The conversation: New research shows nearly half of all older people now taking at least five medicines

[3] The World Health Organisation: Risk factors of ill health among older people

[4] Bostrom, N. (2005). The fable of the dragon tyrant. Journal of Medical Ethics, 31(5), 273-277.


Hi @nonzerosum
We have selected your post as post of the day for our DaVinci Times. Our goal is to help the scientific community of Steemit, and even if our vote is still small we hope to grow in quickly! You will soon receive our sincere upvote! If you are interested in science follow us sto learn more about our project.

Immagine CC0 Creative Commons, si ringrazia @mrazura per il logo ITASTEM.

Keep in mind that for organizational reasons it’s necessary to use the “steemstem” and “davinci-times” tags to be voted again.
Greetings from @davinci.witness and the itaSTEM team.

Thank you!! 😀

If this was achievable, what would happen to overpopulation?
This topic seems to also shift moral boundaries.
I love the way you're "sitting on the fence" about it.

Overpopulation is never really something that I worry about. In every model that I've seen global population looks like its going to level out to around 11 billion by around the year 2100. Continuing on the current rate of progress I have no doubt we'll be able to cope with that. Now, however, is the time that scares me most. If part of the world races forward at the detriment to the rest (i.e. with climate change), we're all going to struggle in the long term.

Also the fence is the best place to see everything from, of course I'm going to sit there!

Thank you for the resteem! 😀

I'm of the opinion that death (from ageing, not diseases) is kind of a natural way of keeping overpopulation in check. Altering the age people naturally die would cause an imbalance, kind of. Although I don't know about any country with overpopulation issues, but countries with less dense population seem to fare better than countries with denser population. I hope I'm not wrong.

Also the fence is the best place to see everything from, of course I'm going to sit there!

lol....make sure you get a good balance.

You deserve more than a resteem. Maybe a bottle of Origin when you visit Nigeria.

You make a good point, I'll have to look into it and get back to you. My gut feeling is that the reduce in number of children people have due to better health care will level it out, but I take a look at what those that study it for a living say.

I may well one day take you up on that kind offer one day!

Thanks, I'll be here to know what you find.

I may well one day take you up on that kind offer one day!

I'll be waiting...

Great post. Re-steemed.

About 5 months ago I wrote about SENS and Aubrey de Grey (The First (Effectively) Immortal Person May Already Be Alive - SENS Research Foundation).

He claims (or used to claim) that the first effectively immortal person may be alive today. That is, there may be a baby just born today who gives his/her life extended by 50 years. In those 50 additional years the technology improves to give them another 100 years. In those 100 additional years the technology improves to give them another 100 years.

And so on and so forth.

I even bought the book he was selling to try and support their work. I hope they succeed.

Cheers mate! Yes I think de Grey (not to be confused with the Grey youtuber mentioned in the post) was where I first heard about longevity years ago. Ill have to catch up on where he is on it now but I remember something along the lines of; someone thats alive today will live until 150 and that person may already be 50 years old.

Your subjects are quite interesting, I am a biology teacher, many greetings to you, @nonzerosum.

Thank you for stopping by @lauram!

Unfortunately, I saw this too late for an upvote to count--something that I think should be corrected on steem, because it discourages quality content. While I fully support treating aging as a disease, I don't think our society is anywhere near ready for it. Your post immediately reminded me of the thought-experiment portrayed in Torchwood's 4th season, Miracle Day, in which a mysterious event suddenly means that no one dies. I thought the series did a great job of imagining the consequences of life without death. Our society, planet, and economy would not fare well. At this stage, we cannot even figure out (or at least rationally vote for) approaches that will stem the poverty and growing income inequality that we have already. Now imagine more and more people without limit. If we rationally addressed the issues, we could probably make it work, but Brexit, the election of Trump, the fact that people actually believe FOX News, and the vast number of people who would cling to superstitious beliefs, suggests that we don't have a chance. I'm afraid our technology has greatly outpaced our cognitive development.

No problem, yes some way to reward evergreen content would be handy like you say. Although I am likely the; have an idea, write an idea, print mentality of writing for now. I feel its making me less precious with what I write.

Ha yes, I remember that series of Torchwood, that was super dark (also the children being drugs one before that was pretty heavy from memory). Yes, that would be terrifying but the pushing healthy life forward would be very different, especial if we start with the low hanging fruit (e.g. malaria/infectious diseases). I think your right, social change would slow down as the main pushes are usually generational like you say. So how about this, you’re allowed to live as long as you like however you have to move with the times, the moment you say ‘kids these days!’ you’re out Logan's Run style. Sound good?

I suspect this would have to be tied to not having kids. Ultimately, the resources would run out.

The World Health Organization (WHO) will continue to be the best, let us both support and support continue to float, because The World Health Organization (WHO) helps us a lot.

Good luck my brother @nonzerosum saya selalu mendukung anda @fauzan19.