Date: October 1st, 2008
Life expectancy has reached an all-time high, and with that comes an increased risk of chronic diseases and other health conditions. Chronic diseases account for nearly three-fourths of the more than $2 trillion the U.S. annually spends on health care. If those numbers sound daunting, consider that costs will skyrocket in January 2011 when 78 million Americans begin to enroll in Medicare. The new president may choose to revamp health care when he takes office, but without breakthroughs in research, costs will continue to rise as our nation ages.
In the July 19, 2008 issue of the British Medical Journal (BMJ), a group of health and science experts, including Daniel Perry, executive director of the Alliance for Aging Research, asserts that a research focus on slowing the aging process would result in health, economic, and societal benefits collectively known as the “Longevity Dividend.” In “New Model for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention for the 21st Century,” they call for increased public funding for aging research that will supplement—but not replace—research into individual diseases.
Colin Farrelly, associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Waterloo in Canada, supports the experts’ view in another BMJ article entitled “Has The Time Come to Take on Time Itself?” In this article, Farrelly mentions a number of scientific studies that suggest aging isn’t an unchangeable process. For example, research has shown that limiting food intake in organisms such as mice, worms, and flies can slow the progress of various age-related diseases. It has also been found that resveratrol, an antioxidant found in wine, can mimic a reduced-calorie diet in overweight mice, greatly increasing their chances of survival.
Although interventions to slow the aging process have a long way to go before they can be tested in humans, studies like these show that the current biological lifetime can potentially be extended. The amount of funding invested into such research will determine the timescale and success of aging interventions, but Farrelly thinks the greatest obstacle facing advocates of the Longevity Dividend is convincing the general public that slowing aging is possible and that aging research needs a greater share of public funds.
The Alliance for Aging Research believes that 1% of the annual Medicare budget (around $3 billion) would be a sufficient investment in research to understand and slow the aging process at a modest rate of seven years. This investment would stimulate research into the cellular and physiological processes of aging with the intent of preventing and postponing diseases such as adult diabetes, heart failure, Alzheimer’s disease, and many cancers. Given the state of the economy, investing more money into medical research might seem questionable, but the returns would undoubtedly be worthwhile. With an additional five to seven years of healthy living, people could work longer, invest more, lower their health costs, and stimulate the economy.
“Investing in aging research has the potential to produce even greater societal and economic benefits than the traditional approach of searching for cures of individual diseases,” says Perry.
While some may ask “can we really afford to invest more in such research?” Farrelly declares that the real question is “can we really afford not to tackle aging?” Farrelly says—and we agree—the answer is clearly no.