The first depiction of humanity’s obsession with curing death is The Epic of Gilgamesh—which, dating back to at least 1800 B.C., is also one of the first recorded works of literature, period. Centuries later, the ancient Roman playwright Terentius declared, “Old age itself is a sickness,” and Cicero argued “we must struggle against [old age], as against a disease.” In 450 B.C., Herodotus wrote about the fountain of youth, a restorative spring that reverses aging and inspired explorers such as Ponce de León. But what once was a mythical holy grail is now seemingly within tantalizing reach. As humans’ understanding and knowledge of science and technology have increased, so too have our life spans. Until the 1800s, life expectancy across Europe averaged between 30 and 40 years, and now the average life expectancy in the U.S. is just under 79 years; in Japan and Hong Kong, it’s more than 84 years.
Maybe the ancients weren’t wrong, and aging can be not only delayed but cured like a disease. Over the years, the movement to classify aging as a disease has gained momentum not only from longevity enthusiasts but also from scientists. In 1954, Robert M. Perlman published a paper in the Journal of American Geriatrics Society called “The Aging Syndrome” in which he called aging a “disease complex.” Since then, others have jumped on board, including gerontologists frustrated by a lack of funding to study the aging process itself. A 2015 publication by a team of international researchers declares, “It is time to classify biological aging as a disease.” In 2018, the World Health Organization added an extension code in the latest version of the International Classification of Diseases for “ageing-related” diseases, which it defines as those “caused by pathological processes which persistently lead to the loss of organism’s adaptation and progress in older ages.” In other words, diseases that occur and worsen as we age, like cancer and arthritis. That decision may pave the way for defining aging itself as a disease.