Date: February 1st, 2001
Quantum Leap Forward in Science Leaves Us With Great Gains, Yet Still Much to Do
Fifteen years ago, the study of human aging was largely an academic backwater: the field lacked sufficient funding, public support, and scientific prestige. Congress had created the National Institute on Aging (NIA) in the mid-1970s, but aging was one of the least funded and lowest priorities for federal medical research. Of the 11 federal health research institutes at the time, the aging institute ranked 10th in terms of budget and funding support. Only dental research was lower on the scientific food chain.
Aging also lacked a coherent and active public constituency, such as those mobilized for individual diseases of the heart, cancer, diabetes and AIDS. Such a low ranking given to aging was just plain wrong, given that we all expect to experience aging, but by no means will we all be struck by the diseases that get the lion's share of political support.
When the Alliance was launched in 1986, aging research still lacked the respectability in the scientific community that its mission deserved. Cellular and molecular biology were not generally applied to problems of aging; most research reports were descriptive rather than intervention-oriented science. For example, a study might have described what occurs as the kidney ages, rather than examining how to slow or prevent complications associated with the process.
In the last 15 years, however, we have made enormous gains in bringing first-rate science and new tools into this field. We are fast entering an era when we will control some of the biological mechanisms that in part define aging. Perhaps soon, we may be able to shape the aging process for our own benefit - not with the goal of producing a 170-year-old woman or man - but to maintain health and vitality throughout life, and to reduce to a minimum, frailty and disabilities associated with aging.
Recently, representatives of the most developed nations in the world met in Tokyo to review the current understanding of the scientific modification of aging. Scientists and policymakers from more than two dozen nations concurred that the ability of various biotechnologies to reduce aging-related diseases is an emerging phenomenon in the 21st Century. This is a quantum leap from where we were in 1985.
While science is moving forward with increasing velocity, it is vital that public support remains strong for the ultimate goal of healthier, longer lives. The more scientists learn to uncover and control some of the basic processes of life, death and aging, the more there will be some ethical, moral and religious concerns to be addressed.
Already the U.S. Congress has considered placing limitations on scientific inquiry regarding stem cells, fetal tissue grafts, and therapeutic cloning. You can expect these debates to become more frequent and even more heated, as researchers present us with often dazzling, yet sometimes uncomfortable, information about the inner workings of human biology. Fear of the unknown, especially on the frontiers of human biology, is an understandable emotion.
No doubt, some will say we should slow or stop medical research advances that seem to go "too far," or to upset what some might consider the natural order of things. To anyone who romanticizes ages that preceded modern medical research, I recommend a thoughtful stroll through any old cemetery where death in childhood and in youth is all too depressingly on display.
The 20th Century gave us an enhanced opportunity to live lives on average at least 50 percent longer than what was "natural" in the time of our great-grandparents. Now aging research has to tackle the diseases and disabilities that too often rob people of the benefit of long life, and design a healthy, vital longevity that honors human potential.
We have only about 15 years before the oldest members of the Baby Boom Generation begin moving by the millions into the ages traditionally set aside for retirement, Social Security and Medicare. We owe it to ourselves to harness the gifts of research and science in order to realize the full potential of what has been set in motion: nothing short of a revolution in human longevity.
With scientific discoveries coming so rapidly - and with the politics of aging research still in flux - it would be foolhardy to make firm predictions about breakthrough therapies and the best avenues to achieve them as we look toward the future. A growing number of leading scientists in the field of aging believe the next 15 years will produce the means to reduce, delay, or eliminate altogether such scourges as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, and cardiovascular disease.
There is even the possibility of one or more breakthroughs that could produce a paradigm shift in the way we think about aging.
Fifteen years after this organization was launched, the science of aging and medicine is no longer a backwater; it looks now more like the beginning of a tidal wave. Hang on for the ride of your life!