Is Aging The World's Biggest Problem?

What's the world's biggest problem? Is it possible to say? Well, to be able to compare alternatives, you at least need some criterion to evaluate against, and what should that criterion be?

Here are some possibilities:

  • To what extent something makes humans less happy
  • How much suffering something inflicts in humans
  • How much suffering something inflicts in humans and other animals
  • To what extent something affects the average life-span of humans
  • The cost of the problem in dollar terms
  • Existential risks - something that threatens to wipe out the entire human race

Most of these alternatives focus on humans, and that's what I'm going to continue to focus on in this article. I think many people - maybe most people - will find that natural. However, I don't think it's obvious that the focus should be solely on humans, and you can argue that factory farming may be a bigger problem than any of the problems humans face, and I can't really say you're wrong.

It's also quite hard to put numbers on some of these alternatives, like how much something affects people's feeling of happiness.

The most straight-forward criterion to use, I think, is calculating how many years of life the various problems take away from an average person - how the problems affect the average global life-expectancy.

So, what are the problems that humanity faces? Here are some potential problems, in alphabetical order:

  • Aging
  • Climate change/global warming
  • Diseases
  • Hunger and poverty
  • Meteorite impact
  • Overpopulation/lack of resources
  • Pollution
  • War and terrorism

Climate change/global warming: The number of deaths from natural disasters and extreme weather has decreased substantially over the past century. From 2010-2015 the average was about 70,000 deaths annually from these causes. How many of these were caused by the climate being warmer or different now than previously is hard to say. Potentially, the number could be less than 0, but even if we assume that these deaths were all caused by climate change, average global life expectancy would only be changed by a tiny fraction of a year due to climate change. It's not impossible that the climate could get more hostile in the future, but with better technology and more people escaping poverty, I don't think it's unrealistic that the number of climate-related deaths will continue to go down.

Non-age-related diseases: Most people are killed by diseases, but most of those diseases are age-related. (Age-related diseases will be included in the discussion about aging below.) About two thirds of all deaths are caused by aging (mainly age-related diseases), so let's assume the remaining third of deaths are caused by non-age-related diseases. That's a small exaggeration, but I'm not aiming to find the exact numbers here. Let's further assume deaths from non-age-related diseases occur on average when people are halfway in their expected life-spans, so when they're about 36 years old, which is probably an under-estimate since the immune system gets weaker as we get older. But if we use these numbers, it means that non-age-related diseases take away about 10-15 years of life per person on average.

Hunger and poverty: Hunger, and especially poverty, are big problems. I guess poverty is rarely a direct cause of death, but there's a big gap in average life-expectancy between rich and poor countries. So indirectly, poverty could be responsible for a lot of deaths. The average life-expectancy world-wide is 71.4 years. In Japan, the country with the highest life-expectancy, the average is 83.7 years. So eradicating hunger and poverty will at most extend the average human life-expectancy by about 12 years. I expect a relatively high percentage of deaths from non-age-related diseases will be avoided if hunger and poverty are eliminated.

Meteorite impact: If the Earth is hit by a large asteroid, the entire human race could be wiped out. If such an asteroid is bound to hit Earth in the next decade or two, there may be nothing we can do about it, but further into the future, we'll probably be able to protect ourselves from most such impacts. We saw that the average life-expectancy is 71.4 years; the average age of everyone alive is close to 30 years, so an extinction event that wiped out the entire human race would take away a little more than 40 years of life on average for every person on Earth.

Overpopulation/lack of resources: On a global scale, I don't think the Earth is overpopulated. By that I mean we're able to produce enough food for everyone. However, there are crowded places where people starve, but in those cases the problems have other root causes, such as poverty, lack of education, war and/or bad governance. Even if no one should ever die of aging, I don't think overpopulation will be a big issue. The reason is that the number of children born per woman (the fertility rate) is going down as the standard of living goes up, and the fertility rate has more than halved during the last 50 years.

Pollution: Crowded places, especially in poor countries, also tend to be polluted, and local pollution causes a lot of people to die prematurely. In India the average life-expectancy is reduced by 1-2 years due to pollution.

War and terrorism: War and terrorism are still big problems that kill many people, about 100,000 people were killed in 2014. This was a very high number compared with previous years, but even so, it almost doesn't impact the global average life-expectancy.

And then we have aging...
Aging, including age-related diseases, kills about 90% of the population in developed countries, and about two thirds of the population overall.

Due to aging, the risk of any one person dying in the next year is increasing exponentially over time, doubling about every eight years after age 35. If the risk of dying had stayed constant from we were 20 years old, we would live to a little over 1000 years on average. In the US, the numbers are actually about 600 years for boys and 1700 years for girls, due to boys being a little more "crazy" than girls...

So aging takes away about 1000 years of life for the average person in developed countries. It also reduces the average life-expectancy significantly in the rest of the world, but to play it very conservatively, let's ignore that. About a sixth of the global population live in developed countries, so dividing 1000 years by six, we find that curing aging will at least cause the average life-expectancy to increase by 166 years, probably a lot more than that. Aging thus eclipses all the other global problems we've discussed, including extinction events,1) so in this sense aging is definitely the world's biggest problem! 2)

The worst part about aging, I would say, is that it causes people to die - that people's lives are lost forever. But aging also has other very bad consequences, such as disability, pain and suffering. Many old people lose their independence and aren't able to contribute to society. The costs of aging are extreme both in terms of money, suffering and years of life lost.

On the positive side, I think aging will be solved in the relatively near future. However, considering the gravity of the problem, I don't think nearly enough resources are being spent on trying to solve it. Other problems are important to solve, too, and with more than 7 billion people on the planet, we can certainly work on all problems at the same time.

However, I don't think very many people are aware of how important it is to solve aging and to rejuvenate old people. About 100,000 people die every day from aging and age-related diseases, so if we can speed up aging research so that aging is solved just one day sooner, we could potentially save 100,000 lives! So please consider helping. I'm not a researcher myself, but I know that SENS Research Foundation does a very good job in this area. You can donate to SENS here. Another way to help is to let others know about the problem. As mentioned, far too few people are aware of it.

Do you agree that aging is the world's biggest problem? Should we use other criteria than average life-expectancy to determine what's the world's worst problem? Would that lead to a different result?

1) Extinction events also cause future humans not to be born, and can thus be said to be a bigger problem than aging, although it would take away fewer years of life per person alive today. However, the main reason I would say a meteorite impact or other extinction event is not a bigger problem than aging is that the risk of it happening any time soon is very low.

2) The average life-expectancy could rise further if the world is made more safe, something which could be achieved by e.g. self-driving cars and finding treatments for non-age-related diseases.

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