Research investment should focus on slowing the aging process

A new study involving several universities indicates that research into the delay of aging would have a better payoff than advances in such fatal diseases as cancer and heart problems.

Even modest gains in the scientific comprehension of how to slow the aging process would mean 11.7 million more healthy seniors over age 65 in 2060 than even optimistic advances in cancer and heart research.

This is according to analysis by scientists from the University of Southern California, Harvard University, Columbia University, the University of Illinois at Chicago and other institutions. Even modest gains in scientific understanding in delaying aging and infirmities of old age would provide better health as well as greater economic returns.

The number of people 65 and older is anticipated to double in the next half century, according to the Census Bureau. That would mean 100 million elders in 2060.

Dana Goldman, at USC’s Center for Health Policy and Economics, said, “Now disabled life expectancy is rising faster than total life expectancy, leaving the number of years that one can expect to live in good health unchanged or diminished.”

The study results indicated much lower or declining returns for continuing the present research “disease model,” the approach of treating fatal diseases independently, rather than tackling the shared, underlying cause of frailty and disability — aging itself. Aging more slowly “can delay the onset and progression of many disabling diseases simultaneously,” Goldman predicted.

Reducing the cancer rate by 25 percent in the next few decades (that would be in line with the most optimistic historical trends) would barely improve population health over not doing anything at all, the analysis concluded.

The same situation is true for heart disease, which is the leading cause of fatalities worldwide. The findings follow the same line found in earlier studies, which showed that wiping out cancer completely would increase life expectancy by only about three years.

“Even a marginal success in slowing aging is going to have a huge impact on health and quality of life. This is a fundamentally new approach to public health that would attack the underlying risk factors for all fatal and disabling diseases,” said corresponding author S. Jay Olshansky of the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “We need to begin the research now. We don’t know which mechanisms are going to work to actually delay aging, and there are probably a variety of ways this could be accomplished, but we need to decide now that this is worth pursuing,” he said.

Several lines of scientific inquiry already have shown how we might age more slowly, including studies of the genetics of centenarians and other long-living people.

Slowing the signs of biological aging has also been accomplished in animals using drugs and restriction of calories.

“Shifting the focus of medical investment to delayed aging instead of targeting diseases individually would lead to significant gains in physical health and social engagement,” Goldman said. “We see extremely large population health benefits, and the benefits will extend to future generations. There are major fiscal challenges, but these are manageable with reasonable policy changes, and the economic value of such a shift is too large to ignore.”