Every year, millions of public and private dollars go into research aimed at combatting diseases such as cancer, arthritis, type 2 diabetes and Alzheimer’s – all byproducts of getting older.
What if by slowing down the aging process, we could eliminate those age-related diseases that can make a person’s later years miserable and tax the healthcare system, as well as the economy? Would it make sense to focus research dollars on delaying aging rather than on combatting the diseases of aging?
A team of scientists at top universities recently studied this question and concluded that indeed, we would be better off health- and economy-wise if we put our resources into postponing the aging process rather than combating cancer, Alzheimer’s and all the other other diseases that so many older people die from.
By the year 2060 the aging population – those 65 and older – is expected to double to 106 million. Based on these numbers the researchers, whose study was published in the October 2013 issue of Health Affairs, are projecting that by delaying aging, we could see 11.7 million people being healthy rather than disabled every year from 2030 to 2060.
Is delayed aging even possible in this century?
We spoke with S. Jay Olshansky, a senior author of the Health Affairs study. Olshansky is a professor of public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago and is affiliated with the Center on Aging at the University of Chicago.
Where are we now in the knowledge and research on delayed aging?
If you look around, the evidence for delayed aging is everywhere. People are living into their 90s and 100s. They are aging slower than the rest of us because they’re genetically driven to live that long – they’ve won the genetic lottery. So, although there is a random component to aging, and people can die early due to random events, those who are aging more slowly are genetically programmed to do so.
What we’re doing is looking for ways to take that information and transform it into therapeutic intervention to delay aging in others who are not programmed for long life.
The only way to achieve healthy life extension is to slow the aging process, because that influences in a positive way all diseases and disorders simultaneously. It’s much more economical to extend healthy life by slowing the aging process than by attacking specific diseases. So, the goal is to increase the length of healthy life. If we continue with the current disease-specific approach, we may prolong life with frailty and disease.
Science has caught up with the idea. We’ve reached the point where it makes sense to invest in decelerated aging and make it the foundation of public health for the future.
Would you tell us more about this and how delayed aging might reduce healthcare costs?
Even one year of healthy life is an extremely valuable resource, especially in older age. That means money for that one year is not being spent in the medical system. Any time healthy life is extended, healthcare costs are reduced.
If this works and we slow aging, people would be able to stay in the workforce longer. So one huge advantage to healthy older people is that they are consumers – and consumers who contribute substantially to the economy. It’s wonderful for the economy.
What would be the health returns of delayed aging?
The simplest way to think of it is this: It would take 50 years to turn 40. It’s the difference between clock time and biological time. Biological time can be slowed. The risk of health problems doubles about every seven years. So if we reduce the risk of everything by half, the health benefits would be huge.
Is delayed aging a realistic goal – and if so, when will treatment be available?
I expect we’ll have an intervention by 2030. There is a great deal of research still to be done, but there’s already enough to show that aging can be modified and that it’s only a matter of time.
In the laboratory, we’ve already slowed aging in a wide variety of species. One thing we’ve discovered, for example, is that a side effect of the drug Rapamycin is delayed aging.
Scientists and organizations have come together and have formed what is known as the Longevity Dividend Initiative. The initiative is scheduled to begin fundraising next year to dramatically advance this research.
Who would receive treatment for delayed aging, and who gets to decide?
We don’t know yet exactly how it is going to work, but we’re hoping it will be simple and widely accessible.
A recent Pew study indicated that Americans don’t want to live so long. How do we deal with that, and do you think our attitudes will change?
The problem is that people weren’t asked about healthy aging. The study didn’t get at the issue of a healthy lifespan, so if the question were modified to ask about healthy life, most people would sign up.
There’s a lot of resistance to the whole idea of anti-aging research. Do you think Americans misunderstand its implications?
People who say they already can offer aging interventions are not scientists. They’re using the fear of aging to get people to buy products. Consumers have to ask what evidence there is to back up such claims. People who make these claims use advertisements that look like scientific journals, but they are not scientific journals and there’s no scientific evidence to back up their claims about aging science.
These kinds of claims have been around for hundreds of years. The evidence that they’re false is that those who make the claims don’t live long. That itself is good evidence. But scientists working on delayed aging are doing extraordinary work that has a genetic basis.
Google recently got behind Calico, a giant anti-aging initiative that they’ll be throwing a lot of money at; do you think this will impact the rate of progress in this field?
Yes. From everything we know about this and everything we’ve seen, they have the same goals that we have. The fact that Google is making this investment is one of the best examples of why delayed aging should be the next public health intervention.
The research published in Health Affairs was backed by funding from the MacArthur Foundation, the American Federation for Aging Research and the Alliance for Aging.
How do you feel about the idea of delayed aging? Economic necessity? Troubling possibility? Have your say in the comments below.