In Brief
  • There is more support in the scientific community for categorizing aging as a disease, presenting opportunities to treat symptoms to extend life.
  • Many experts may agree with the semantic change, but some of the bolder claims being are still met with skepticism.

Can Aging Be Stopped?

Many diseases come with old age. But the idea of pathologizing aging in itself and as a whole has been gaining attention the past few years. Some argue that aging is just damage that the body has sustained throughout life—that these natural wear-and-tear effects can be stopped and ultimately undone.

This seems absurd, that is, until you see what this research has led to.

British biologist Aubrey de Grey argues that, just like diseases, the symptoms of aging all have a solution. We just either haven’t found or perfected them yet.

He says that aging is the result of the accumulation of “garbage material” that our cells cannot break down. De Grey and his team decided to look into the phase after death for a solution to sustaining life and youth: decomposition. They hypothesized that the answer lies in the decomposition of dead bodies, where there are bacteria that can break down everything in the human body, including those our bodies could not break down on their own while we are alive.

And it worked: in 2012, they identified two types of bacteria that release enzymes capable of effectively and completely breaking down 7-ketocholesterol (7KC), a substance responsible for cardiovascular disease. They then modified the genes of these bacteria so that they would work within human cells, which were successfully protected from the toxic substance.

A Curable Disease

The changing perspective on aging is yielding different approaches to diseases common with age. More scientists are beginning to share this view and more medical research is being focused on undoing damage and supplying deficiencies rather than merely alleviating symptoms.

Recently, we covered an ongoing clinical trial wherein blood plasma from young people are transfused into Alzheimer’s patients after lab tests on mice showed promising results in old mice, improving both their physical performance as well as their cognitive functions.

Mutaz Musa, physician at the Department of Emergency Medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, says that whether to pathologize aging or not seems to be “largely semantic,” he agrees that it should be perceived and treated as a disease, despite de Grey’s outlandish statements.

“Although many of de Grey’s claims remain controversial—notably, that the first person who will live to 1,000 years old is already among us—I agree that we can and should pathologize aging. In fact, it seems we already have,” he wrote in an opinion piece for the Scientist.