Aging is not a disease, but we do become increasingly vulnerable to age-related diseases as we become older. A natural consequence of a longer life is an increased potential for chronic illness. The process of normal aging (senescence) gradually reduces the physiological resilience of our body; aging means we become more susceptible to chronic diseases during the second half of life. Developing an awareness of age-related diseases and the impact they can have on our health and wellbeing is a basic skill in maintaining optimal health.
What is an Age-related Disease?
During the second half of life, the normal course of aging reduces the natural resilience of our body. Aging does not cause disease, but it does render the body more susceptible to disease over time. As normal aging progresses, chronic diseases tend to emerge.
An age-related disease is chronic; once acquired it becomes an unwelcome but lifelong companion. They present a challenge to our quality of life, and can impair our mobility and independence. The physical impact of an age-related disease can also become a source of anxiety and despair.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) maintains a healthy aging program designed to promote optimal living in old age. Their research shows that in 2011 approximately 80% of seniors had at least one chronic illness, and 50% had two. The most common forms of age-related disease are:
- heart disease
- chronic respiratory disease
Aging also decreases the resilience of the immune system. As senescence gradually weakens the immune system weakens, we become more susceptible to autoimmune diseases.
The presence of chemical toxicity creates an additional burden in the body and can aggravate disease at any age. Chemical toxicity in the body impairs our health and increases the probability of age-related or autoimmune disease.
An age-related disease can reduce our independence and interaction with the world around us. Under the burden of a chronic illness, the range of physical experience begins to contract. In its most profound form, a disease shifts our awareness from “doing” in order to redefine ways of “being” in the world under these new circumstances.
The Burden of Disease
The Global Burden of Disease (GBD) project originated in 1990 in a collaboration between the World Health Organization, Harvard School of Public Health, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), and the World Bank.
The Global Burden of Disease Study provides an overview of the impact of diseases leading to death and disability across various regions around the world. The focus of the study project is to reveal gaps between current and ideal health circumstances, and to develop strategies to reduce this gap.
The most recent GBD study is focused on the year 2010 and was released in December 2012. It is, “the largest ever systematic effort to describe the global distribution and causes of a wide array of major diseases, injuries, and health risk factors.” The GBD 2010 establishes a foundation in the development of immediate health care priorities.
Majority of the world living longer, but spending more years in poor health compared to 20 years ago…
“In the past two decades, there has been less attention towards reducing the impact of non-fatal disease and injury than towards reducing mortality,” said Dr. Haidong Wang…
“As the global population is living longer, efforts to improve health need to also incorporate the burden of disease that affects how we function.”
There has been a significant reduction in the presence of infectious disease around the world. Simultaneously, there has been a significant increase in chronic disease worldwide.
One of the consequences of an aging population will be a magnification of the global burden of disease. As more people live longer, the occurrence of age-related disease will increase dramatically.
It is poignant to realize that although we are living longer, we often do so under an increased burden of chronic disease that impairs our quality of life in old age.
A longer life does not necessarily equate to a better life.
Will I develop a chronic illness?
If I live long enough, I probably will. So far, so good.
I can recall the emergence and intensification of chronic disease in my parents’ lives. It seemed to arrive around the age of 60, and by age 80 they each had multiple chronic diseases. Ultimately, age-related disease took their independence away from them.
Those of us with parents in the here and now will stand witness to the harsh trajectory of age-related disease. Those of us who have already lost our parents have already become intimate with the ravages of chronic illness.
The reality of becoming more susceptible to disease over time is unpleasant and harsh. It seems unfair that we work hard to build a life, only to experience our own deterioration and eventual suffering in the grasp of chronic illness.
An age-related disease reduces our independence and mobility; there is no cure or escape. Our task is to learn to manage the symptoms, pain, and suffering caused by chronic illness. In a certain sense, the emergence of an age-related disease in our life reveals a poignant point of no return and requires us to find a new way of being in the world – and perhaps even a new identity.
Living as long as possible is not always ideal or desirable.
In Living Old, some of the participants indicated that it is possible to live too long. Their life had been medically extended under a crushing burden of disease. Suffering had entered into their life with no possibility of relief. They continued to live deeper into their own outer reaches of old age, but they had lost their desire for life due to the intensification of age related disease in their lives.
The inevitables of life are often a profound source of fear.
Of course, we should not live in fear of age-related disease and the frailty and loss of independence it may impose upon us in the future. Nor should we avoid it because it is unpleasant. Developing a deeper understanding about age-related disease and vast range of effects it can have on our life is a core discipline of aging.
It may be that age-related disease is actually an important opportunity to rethink and revise our entire life course.