Date: May 1st, 2011
Investigators supported by the National Institute on Aging (NIA) are on the cusp of research breakthroughs that could enhance their abilities to predict and intervene earlier in the processes of many age-related chronic diseases. In particular, rapid progress in recent years in advancing understanding of the aging process has led to considerable knowledge of how scientists might increase human health in later life by opposing the primary risk factor for most disease of aging—aging itself.
If realized, these advances would usher in a new era of medicine, enabling interventions that delay or prevent everything from dementia to cancer to osteoporosis. Such advances would not only positively affect the health of countless people, but they also have the potential to reduce the long-term health costs that are expected to grow exponentially as a result of our aging society. Unfortunately, current federal support for the NIA could severely limit investigators’ ability to realize the potential of many fields of science, especially this one.
A Look at the Horizon
On January 1, 2011, Kathy Casey-Kirschling of Cherry Hill, New Jersey celebrated her birthday. While this may not seem like a landmark event, except to Kathy and her family, it was a notable date for all Americans. On that day, Kathy and the leading edge of the 77 million baby boomers began reaching retirement age. Previously, about 7,000 people hit retirement age every day. After January 1, 2011 that number increased from 10,000 each day and will stay at that level for 18 years.
This rapid and sustained graying of the population is expected to be accompanied by increased incidences of many dreaded, debilitating, and costly age-related diseases. According to the most recent publicly‐available National Health Care Expenditure data that outlines spending by age group, out of every dollar spent on health care in the United States, 34 cents is spent on health care for adults aged 65+—a group comprising just 12% of the population. By 2029, baby boomers over 65 will grow to make up about 16% of the population.
Chronic diseases associated with aging account for more than 75% of Medicare and other federal health care costs. The Congressional Budget Office projects that unprecedented increases in age-related diseases resulting from population aging is one reason that total spending on healthcare will continue to rise from 17% to 25% of GDP by 2025.
Direct and indirect costs associated with just one age-related disease, Alzheimer’s disease, are estimated at $172 billion. That number is expected to grow to $1.078 trillion in 2050. By that time as many as 13.5 million people will have Alzheimer’s disease. Simply put, our nation does not have the luxury of time to put off addressing the health research needs to meet the challenges posed by this population.
The National Institute on Aging (NIA) leads the national scientific effort to understand the nature of aging in order to promote the health and well-being of older adults. Their investigators provide a first line of defense in helping our nation grapple with the complexities presented by the multiple chronic age-related diseases many elderly Americans suffer from. In striking contrast to the growing need for more and better care, our investment in the NIA is rapidly declining. Out of each dollar appropriated to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), only 3.6 cents goes toward supporting work of the NIA. Between FY 2003 and FY 2010, scientists saw a series of nominal increases and cuts that amounted to an almost 15% reduction in funds for the NIA. In addition, the number of grants the NIA has been able to fund has declined to an alarming low rate. Considering what the federal government spends on the health care costs associated with age-related diseases, it makes sound economic sense to increase federal resources for aging research now.
Seeking a Larger Boat
The Alliance for Aging Research recently joined with leaders from over 20 other patient advocacy organizations and more than 400 research leaders to ask President Obama and NIH Director Francis Collins to increase the NIA’s budget by $300 million in fiscal year 2012. In reality, the NIA is in need of a much greater funding increase to achieve some of the breakthroughs mentioned above, but recognizing the difficult economic times in this country, this amount was suggested as a step to at least increase the NIA’s baseline to a level consistent with comparable research initiatives conducted though the National Institutes of Health (NIH). When the President released his budget in February of this year, the NIH fared better than some other government agencies. NIH would receive a proposed $32 billion. However, this would only equate to about a $19 million increase for the NIA.
Policymakers must be continually reminded that investment in research is necessary for our society to remain healthy and economically viable. The research that the NIA supports today will be the basis for future advances in science and improvements to our health. Now is the time to reach out to your member of Congress and senators to let them know that you believe a financially healthy National Institute on Aging is critical to the nation and to the health of its people. Ask them to give special thought to how they could bolster the NIA when they consider FY 2012 appropriations legislation for the NIH.