University of São Paulo: After pressure, WHO backs off from classifying old age as a disease

THEThe World Health Organization (WHO) is responsible for publishing the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) , which serves as a parameter to the whole world and has approximately 55,000 codes.
The cause of death, for example, can have several codes. One of them, “senility”, would be replaced by the term “old age” in the new 2022 edition, the 11th made by the WHO, to attest that people die from it as an official cause.

However, there was a lot of criticism because of this change, as old age would be treated as a disease. Yeda Duarte, who is a professor at the School of Nursing (EE) and the Faculty of Public Health (FSP), both at USP, and coordinator of the Sabe – Saúde, Bem-Estar e Aging study , at FSP, explained the problems arising from this.

“It was an unfortunate trade-off, because senility is bad, but good or bad is associated with age-related diseases. Old age has nothing to do with it. Old age is a process of life, it is a phase of life. That’s all,” he emphasizes.

The teacher goes on to explain that the moment a new code is created or adopted at the ICD, it means that it will be seen as a health problem and will need treatment. When the cause of death is not correctly attested, “research on better treatments […] and the preparation of professionals to work with the elderly” are weakened, he ponders.

After pressure from civil society, the WHO backed off and changed the code “old age” to “decline in intrinsic capacity associated with ageing”. However, Yeda points out that the aging process “is a result not only of what happens intrinsically, but also of what happens extrinsically — the living conditions in which I lived, the social conditions in which I was born”.

Therefore, further discussions would be needed to find the proper term. “People need to understand what you’re talking about, so it can be used. […] These things change over time. The World Health Organization website allows you to make suggestions ,” he adds.

Reaching old age with quality of life


Healthy aging is directly related to habits throughout life — which eliminates the prejudice that the passage of time is related to diseases. But that weight is not just on individual decisions.

As the professor explains, culture has great weight in habits that influence health over the years. As an example, people who are now 60, 70, 80 years old lived in a time when smoking was something socially valued. As a consequence, they suffer from problems related to this habit, not age. “Today we live in the Fit generation. […] We will soon see the effect of high-impact sports on the survival of older people.”

Finally, Yeda points out that many centenarians reach this age with quality of life thanks to friendship networks. Even if some leave for whatever reason, it’s important to keep in touch with people. “Renew your network. This will keep you connected to life and with better quality.”

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