35. Celebrating 35 Years of the Alliance for Aging Research with Founder Dan Perry

Published September 15, 2021

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Show Notes

The Alliance for Aging Research is celebrating 35 years! Here to talk about this incredible milestone and all that the Alliance has accomplished for older adults is our founder, Dan Perry.

Join us in celebrating 35 years on September 21 at Heroes in Health. Register for free here: https://give.agingresearch.org/event/2021-heroes-in-health/e337728.

Episode Transcript

Sue Peschin:

Hi everyone, and welcome to This Is Growing Old, a Podcast from the Alliance for Aging Research. I’m your host Sue Peschin and I serve as President and CEO of the Alliance for Aging Research. This year, the Alliance for Aging Research is celebrating a very important milestone, our 35th anniversary. For 35 years, the Alliance for Aging Research has worked to meet the needs of older Americans. Here with me today is the man who started it all, Alliance for Aging Research founder Dan Perry who founded the organization in 1986. Dan, welcome to This Is Growing Old.

Dan Perry:

Hi, Sue. Very nice of you to have me on and what a wonderful occasion that we’re marking.

Sue Peschin:

Yes. And thank you for being on. It’s a pleasure for me. So as I mentioned, the Alliance is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year. As the founder, what do you think?

Dan Perry:

Well, it’s really amazing, isn’t it? We are also proud of what the Alliance has done to make life better for older Americans, for older Americans and all those people who have ambitions to live to older age and to do so with good health and vitality. I’ve looked into this a little bit about the survival of startup organizations and it’s a pretty grim picture, about a quarter of all startups don’t make it through the first year. And by year two, about a third are gone. And after five years, half are either no longer in business or are stalled.

Dan Perry:

And that’s both startup businesses and startup not-for-profit organizations. From my research, I think the not-for-profits have an even higher kill rate than businesses for a variety of reasons, but 35 years that’s really something. So I’m very proud of all of that. And I think our success is the focus on a mission of advancing science and research and discoveries in healthcare so that more older Americans can enjoy the fruits of a good long life.

Dan Perry:

And it’s about leadership and I’m talking about your leadership, Sue, because six years ago the transition that we made from my role to the new Alliance has been really something to admire. And I think the transition that we made and the success that you’ve made in staying with the mission, but expanding it and deepening it to even more issues in a larger population is something that any not-for-profit should take as their model.

Sue Peschin:

Aw. Thank you, Dan. As I’ve told you many times and it’s a pleasure for me to tell you again, it’s a great gift that you gave me and a lot of trust. And I really appreciate the transition that we did. And for folks that are listening, we did it gradually, which is actually possible. I think a lot of businesses think that when a new leader comes along, you got to push the person who was there before out of the way and just get going. And we didn’t subscribe to that.

Sue Peschin:

And I really benefited from seeing how you led and how you mastered the issues, and got to do it gradually. So I feel very fortunate for that. And then of course neither of us do it alone. We have amazing people and that’s really what the organization is. It’s made up of people and people who work really hard, and who are just as committed to the mission as you and I. It’s a pleasure, it’s a dream, a dream come true for me.

Dan Perry:

Well, as you know, we’ve had a number of leaders of other not-for-profit organizations that were approaching the transition from their founder to a new person come and ask is how it was done. But you say it comes down to people. It comes down to getting lucky with the new leadership and that’s you.

Sue Peschin:

Aw. Thank you, Dan. So let’s take a walk down memory lane. I want to know and I think our listeners would be interested to know what was going on 35 years ago that made you think starting this nonprofit with this mission was important. So take us through some of your favorite highlights over the years and tell us why you started it.

Dan Perry:

Well, I find myself down memory lane a lot these days and I’ll try to keep it concise, but essentially the science of human aging had come of age, if you don’t mind about that time in the mid 1980s. 10 years earlier, Congress had passed a law creating a National Institute on Aging as part of the National Institutes of Health. But 10 years on, the Aging Institute was 10th out of 11 other institutes in terms of its budget and its funding and its ability to carry out its mission. And given the obvious aging of the population because of success of medical advances and healthcare and healthcare delivery from years earlier, we were facing a huge number of older Americans in the future. And yet, we had this research institute that was dramatically underfunded.

Dan Perry:

So one of the problems was that there was no outside organization pressing on Congress to provide that funding. There was no American Cancer Society or American Heart Association for aging despite the need. And most of the senior citizen organizations didn’t see this as a priority. So we jumped in, created an organization, created a focal point in the national health policy debate for investing significantly in research toward healthier, more vibrant aging and the successes there.

Dan Perry:

We went from the National Institute on Aging with a couple $100,000 a year to over $2 billion a year now. That’s quite an achievement. We helped create a program for developing the next leadership in geriatric medicine in American medical schools. We played a significant role in getting congressional attention and funding for the early stages of the Human Genome Project, which some say is the biggest scientific advance of the last half century at least. We fought, we stood firm when some would place limits on medical research using embryonic stem cells, which would have been a great tragedy. And we were able to fend off those efforts.

Dan Perry:

And we appropriately created a space for negotiations between the FDA and industry to at least set the measures for how to bring about the next generation of therapies in Alzheimer’s disease and physical frailty. So those are pretty significant efforts. And in addition, the Alliance’s flood of brochures and educational materials, films, publications of all sorts, making this information accessible and understandable and attractive to the public has been quite an achievement which you and your team continue to carry up.

Sue Peschin:

Yeah, and that’s right. Lindsay Clarke. Absolutely. Well, so I loved hearing all those highlights. I feel like one or two of them that you would have accomplished under your time would have been pretty incredible, but that was a lot and very significant. So you started as the founder and the CEO, and now you’re a founder and a board member at the Alliance. What have you learned about aging over this period of time and what’s changed for you personally?

Dan Perry:

Well, one of the things that I learned is some humility about what we thought was the great success story of the 20th century, which was the steadily increasing years available to people through their advancing life expectancy. We thought that was a given. We applauded our scientists and our educators so that people were living longer and living better. And we thought that would just continue on in the 21st century, but it has hit snags. First came the obesity epidemic in the 1990s. And we saw the increasing years of life expectancy begin to slow down. Then came what some have called the diseases of despair; alcohol and drug use, gun violence, suicides, depression further reduce on across the board on the average life expectancy that we can expect, and now COVID.

Dan Perry:

And the preliminary figures from government agencies are that we have lost a year and a half of life expectancy just from last year. And as we all know, sadly, we’re not done with it. So I still believe that we’re still facing what we’ve called a silver tsunami of chronic age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer and heart disease and diabetes. That’s still our challenge, but we can’t take our eye off the ball that these acute infectious diseases can come along and knock us off our trajectory. And that’s a great lesson to be learned from all of this.

Sue Peschin:

Absolutely. You’ve already talked a bit about COVID, but what do you think COVID taught us about aging and what do you think we still need to overcome?

Dan Perry:

Well, I think it taught us how tentative is our ability to make it to aging. I mean, over 650,000 deaths in one year. I mean, everybody had forgotten that 100 years earlier we had an influenza pandemic very much in the same order. It’s taught us invest in the science and amazing that we came up with the vaccines in the period of time that we did. And that our regulatory agencies have worked hand in glove to bring those forward.

Dan Perry:

I mean, it’s such an enormous achievement and the failures are failures of our political culture and people losing faith in authoritative recognized sources of information. And we have to begin to return to recognizing the difference between a truth and fantasy when it comes to public health. And that’s what we’re talking about, public health.

Sue Peschin:

That’s right. Just as a follow-up with COVID, do you think that, I mean, in addition. It definitely exposed I think a lot of health disparities in communities of color, but oftentimes there’s also not that intersection made between age and communities of color. So older people that were affected by COVID and then sort of doubly affected due to race and ethnicity. What do you think that COVID kind of revealed about that about our healthcare system, about the way that society sort of sees older people?

Dan Perry:

Well, it’s not a new thing to be discovered during COVID. I remember Dr. Louis Sullivan, who is secretary of health and human services back in the George Bush administration, the first George Bush administration, took on the issue of health disparities in underserved communities. A lot of the major foundations have focused on this. COVID did like it has done in so many other areas, it put a spotlight on a problem that was already there.

Dan Perry:

I mentioned that we’ve lost a year and a half overall the population from COVID. Black and Hispanic communities, people have lost three years of average life expectancy at least according to the preliminary numbers from the Center for Health Statistics. So I think it’s put a spotlight on disparities and the need to get our health care delivery and research in align with the way America really looks, which is not all quite Western European.

Sue Peschin:

Right. That’s great. Thank you. So your background is in communications and journalism. So a lot’s changed in 35 years. Tell us how communication has changed do you think for the Alliance over the years?

Dan Perry:

Well, you’d almost be better off to ask how has it not changed? I have a hard time thinking of what I learned in my journalistic training and early stages that has any relevance whatsoever to the way we communicate now. In the early days of the Alliance, one of the things that gave us real strength in talking to lawmakers was that we had Nobel laureates on our advisory board. We could point to sources of highly credible, highly respected sources of information both on the science and on public policy.

Dan Perry:

And by the way, we had congressional advisors from both parties at that time. And that gave us credibility as well. Well, the sources of information that people are now exposed to or whoever can get on a Twitter feed or on Facebook and quote some crazy thing. And how do people tell the difference between what is coming from legitimate science from the Harvard Medical School versus someone that’s frankly just a crackpot with an agenda?

Dan Perry:

So I don’t know how you and the Alliance continue to communicate and so effectively real authoritative, easy to understand and actionable information about aging and about the challenges to aging and the science behind aging as well as you do. And you do a fabulous job of it, but how to break through that echo chamber that the swamp of the internet and social media, I take my hat off to you that you’re still in there doing that and doing it well. Because the training and the experiences that I had wouldn’t cut it today.

Sue Peschin:

Well, we’ll see how things go. We just sent a letter today to the heads of the major social media companies asking them to do more about vaccine disinformation. So we’ll let you know how that goes.

Dan Perry:

Oh, good for you, Bravo. I don’t know whether it was Mark Twain or Jonathan Swift or somebody else who said this, but it bears repeating that a lie can make it halfway around the world while the truth is still putting its shoes on.

Sue Peschin:

That’s a great quote.

Dan Perry:

It’s a great quote and it’s something that we really all should remember. And I also remember in the early days of the Alliance, we considered it the biggest achievement of all to get an opinion piece or a thought piece placed in the Washington Post or the New York Times. We said, “Wow, we can take the rest of the week off. I mean, everybody’s going to see that. The point’s going to be taken up.”

Dan Perry:

Now an op-ed in the New York Times is on an equal footing with whatever somebody wants to dredge up out of the dark corners of the internet. And people have lost the ability to tell the difference. And if you can’t discriminate between authoritative truth and a lie with an agenda, we’re adrift so. Sorry to be pessimistic, but to have spent my life in journalism and politics for that matter and not be a little pessimistic would be a rare thing.

Sue Peschin:

No, I hear you. I mean, I appreciate when I was a kid sitting around with my family and we watched the evening news and pretty much everybody was watching the same evening news. You weren’t watching different versions of reality.

Dan Perry:

Yeah, three candles; CBS, NBC, and ABC. Those were your choices unless you went into really get crazy and pick up the Wall Street Journal or something.

Sue Peschin:

Yeah, there are so many choices now so it is much harder to break through and to break through to know what you’re being fed. Is it reliable or is it not?

Dan Perry:

Well, every technology comes with benefits and with a dark side from nuclear energy to the automobile. And the technology of the digital world definitely has a dark side and a dangerous side. And we haven’t figured yet how to tame it or how to blunt its worst effects. And hopefully we will come out of this and learn how to make the internet and the digital world provide vastly more benefit than harm, but we haven’t figured it out just yet.

Sue Peschin:

Yeah, I hope so. So Dan, I’m going to pivot a little. I’m going to ask you a question that we ask all of our podcast guests, which is when you were younger what did you imagine growing older would be like?

Dan Perry:

Well, like most kids, you don’t give a minute’s thought to growing older and you’ve got a pretty distorted view of what it is. I mean, I thought of my parents as old and they were in their 30s. And I thought of my grandparents as so inexpressibly old as to be unimaginable and they were younger than I am now. So you have a pretty distorted view, but I guess one of the things that I thought about it was that it would be to be old was to be incapacitated. Not be able to move around. Not be able to get outside the house. And the baby boom generation, I give them demerits for some things, but I’ll give my generation credit for helping reshape an image of long life that is so much more positive than what we knew in my youth.

Dan Perry:

We have so many role models. We have senior athletes and entrepreneurs and discovers and hikers and bikers and creative artists in their 70s and 80s and 90s. No longer should we think that a long life means the rocking chair and the shuffleboard court. We have so many other opportunities and society has bet itself to that. We now have adjusted and we expect a fuller life at every stage if you can make it physically, mentally, and with some social means to get there. So it was not a pretty picture when I was a kid. You were old at 30. You were ancient at 60. And too many people, their only choices were either stay with your children when you could no longer take care of yourself, which was your adult children, which was not a happy picture in most cases. Or go to a nursing home, which in those days were pretty horrible.

Dan Perry:

And now we have so many opportunities for senior living and congregate shared living. And most people still want to be independent and live alone if they can, but there’s so many other options and opportunities in so many ways. So we did do some things right. And I trust we’ll continue to improve the opportunities for older people because we’re going to have a lot more of them.

Sue Peschin:

Yep, that’s for sure thankfully. What do you enjoy most about growing older now?

Dan Perry:

When I think of what I’m enjoying the most I’m thinking of family members that never made it to my age. Both my father and my grandfather did not make it out of their 30s. And I think of all of the seasons of life that I’ve been able to experience and that were denied them. And I am just enormously grateful and profoundly appreciative of having been able to experience life. As we all know, if you’re in good health mentally and physically and not in desperate financial straits, life is beautiful. Life can be beautiful even with those things, but I am enjoying the fruits of a long, healthy life, which is what we have been urging the science to extend to many, many more people.

Dan Perry:

And then it’s a cliché to say that with later life comes an opportunity for reflection, but I reflect a lot. And I really am enjoying the opportunity outside meeting after meeting, schedule after schedule kind of life of the work world. I’m grateful to all of you who are doing that. But boy, it sure is nice to have the time to read and write, continue to grow. And the idea that only teenagers can grow intellectually and spiritually is wrong. It’s really an opportunity to grasp all of that in your own time of peace and reflection. So that’s what I like.

Sue Peschin:

I love that. That’s wonderful. That’s great. Yeah, it’s true. And it’s part of the reason why I like quiet on the weekend too because you’re right, when you’re running around and you’re just talking and you need that time to think about what you have, who you’ve interacted with, what you’ve said, all of that. So Dan, thank you so much for joining us today.

Dan Perry:

Happy to do it too. And congratulations again to you and the terrific staff at the Alliance and my fellow board members and all of our funders and those people that have helped get us to 35 years with all of our banners flapping in the breeze.

Sue Peschin:

Yep, happy anniversary Alliance for Aging Research.

Sue Peschin:

Thanks to all of you for listening to This Is Growing Old. Please join us in celebrating 35 years on September 21st at the Alliance’s virtual annual bipartisan congressional awards, Heroes in Health: An Event to Celebrate Meaning, Love, and Healthy Aging. And you can purchase tickets at agingresearch.org.

Sue Peschin:

Our intro and outro music is City Sunshine by Kevin MacLeod. Please stay tuned for new episodes every other Wednesday. You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or anywhere else you listen to podcasts. And please rate and review us if you’re enjoying the show. I want to give a hat tip to our producer Janelle Germanos. And thank you for listening to This Is Growing Old and have a great day.