by Marco Torres
We have new pharmaceuticals being introduced every year for fictitious and nonsensical diagnoses such as Mathematics Disorder, Intermittent Explosive Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Orthorexia Nervosa (healthy eating) and so many other inventions called diseases for the sole purpose of selling more drugs. In what many critics are calling lunacy of unimaginable proportions, The World Health Organization (WHO) now plans to lay down the framework that will set the precedent for classifying aging, something that should be embraced and celebrated, into a disease with elaborate protocols expected to be finalized in 2018.
Most people in modern times have been somewhat unanimous that wrinkles, grief and homosexuality are not diseases, although if you ask the WHO, all of the above may soon be classified as a disease given enough time.
What is considered to be normal and what is considered to be diseased is strongly influenced by historical context. Matters once considered to be diseases are no longer classified as such. For example, when black slaves ran away from plantations they were labeled to suffer from drapetomania and medical treatment was used to try to “cure” them.
Similarly, masturbation was seen as a disease and treated with treatments such as cutting away the clitoris or cauterizing it. Finally, homosexuality was considered a disease as recently as 1974. In addition to the social and cultural influence on disease definition, new scientific discoveries usually financed by pharmaceutical companies lead to the revision of what is a disease and what is not. For example, fever was once seen as a disease in its own right but the realization that different underlying causes would lead to the appearance of fever changed its status from disease to symptom.
This is usually the type of thing we can write an entire satire piece on, because it is so difficult to imagine that biological aging could be entered into the books as a disease process.
In a paper recently published in Frontiers in Genetics, the puppeteer scientists at Insilco Medicine are now highlighting the need for more granular and applied classification of aging in the context of the 11th World Health Organization’s (WHO) International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-11) expected to be finalized in just over two years.
Aging A Disease?
The paper explores the evolution of disease classification practices and the progress made since William Cullen’s seminal Nosolagae Methodicae synopsis published in 1769. It discusses some of the additions to the ICD-10 including some of the less obvious conditions like obesity that may set the precedent for classifying aging as a disease.
While there is clear disagreement among demographers, gerontologists and biogerontologists on the subject, classification of aging as a disease is likely to unite pharmaceutical conglomerates, scientists and medical practitioners in an effort to create possibly dozen of new drugs for normal age-related processes and label them as pathological to attract more resources to and research.
In part, the report calls for creating a task force of scientists to more thoroughly evaluate whether to provide a more granular and actionable classification of aging as a disease in ICD-11.
The following statement puts this deranged thinking into context:
“Aging is a complex multifactorial process leading to loss of function and a very broad spectrum of diseases. While the notion of whether aging itself is a disease is usually disputed, classifying it as such will help shift the focus of biomedicine from treatment to prevention. Classifying aging as a disease with multiple ‘non-garbage’ ICD codes may help create business cases for large pharmaceutical companies…considering the unprecedented increases in life expectancy and the heavy burden of medical costs in the developed countries, maintaining the human body in the disease-free youthful state for as long as possible is not just an altruistic cause, but a pressing economic necessity”, said Alex Zhavoronkov, PhD, CEO of Insilico Medicine, Inc.
Where Do We Draw The Line?
“The word disease seems to be as difficult to define as beauty, truth or love, although the concept of disease lies at the heart of medicine,” said says Kari Tikkinen, MD, PhD. But why is it that the medical community has no hesitation in defining dozens of new diseases every year, most of which have no scientific justification?
“Illness is always a social construct,” notes Dr. Nortin Hadler, professor of medicine and microbiology/immunology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and author of the book “Worried Sick: A Prescription for Health in an Overtreated America.”
“People have to agree — both people, in general, and those in the medical community — that a life experience should not be labeled an illness,” Hadler says. “For example, the Victorians medicalized orgasm, and we medicalize the lack of it.”
The advent of genetic screening could eventually mean that apparently healthy people will be labeled “sick” decades before an actual diagnosis.
UK genetics researchers say that genetic tests “could drive a new wave” of medicalization. With the exception of a relatively small number of medical conditions directly caused by a single defective gene, genetic screening cannot predict whether a person will develop a disease, note David Melzer, of the University of Cambridge, and Ron Zimmern, of Strangeways Research Laboratory in Cambridge.
Childhood shyness and internet browsing could also soon be reclassified as mental disorders under new guidelines in the the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders which experts say would eventually influence how we think about them.
Recent proposed changes to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the bible of the psychiatric profession childhood temper tantrums, teenage irritability and binge eating as psychiatric disorders.
Doctors are usually the most inclined to consider states of being as diseases. Laypeople are the least inclined, and nurses and legislators are in between. The willingness to pay for treatment from public funds is very strongly correlated with the perception of disease (that is, whether people regard a particular state of being as a disease) and that has likely factored into the decisions by top officials to label aging as a disease.
Barbara Mintzes of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, argues that prescription-drug advertising to consumers–currently allowed only in the US and New Zealand–is helping to medicalize “normal human experience.” “Relatively healthy people are targeted,” she writes, “because of the need for adequate returns on costly advertising campaigns.”
Many of these advertising dollars, according to Mintzes, are spent on relatively new, expensive drugs intended for long-term use in large groups of people, such as medications for cholesterol, impotence and anxiety.
And now aging will soon be added to that list. Those who still think science has not been hijacked by the highest bidder are completely delusional. Perhaps there will soon be a new drug for them.
Marco Torres is a research specialist, writer and consumer advocate for healthy lifestyles. He holds degrees in Public Health and Environmental Science and is a professional speaker on topics such as disease prevention, environmental toxins and health policy.