SAGE Crossroads: Alzheimer's Research versus Aging Research

The transcript is up for the July 19th SAGE Crossroads webcast entitled "Alzheimer's Research and Basic Science of Aging: Is There a Better Balance?" This opening commentary sums up what many people are thinking about budget priorities in public funding right now:

I imagine a sort of a fantasy where I would go into the office of the chief of the National Institutes of Health and tell him or tell her, "Look, we've got a treatment. It works in mice and rats. We don't know how it works. But it knocks down the incidence of breast cancer by 90 percent." I imagine I would get a very pleasant smile and a handshake and someone who wants to listen to me further.

Then I say, "Well, there's a side effect. It also slows down the rate of brain aging and cataract development." And I would be told, "That's great news indeed! We should work on this further."

And then I'll say, "Well, there's something else I forgot to mention; all of the other kinds of cancers and immune failure and muscle failure - these also are delayed by 90 percent."

At this point the person who's in charge of this conversation, in charge of NIH, says, "Wait a minute. You are talking about slowing down aging. Everyone knows that can't be done."

That's an old paradigm and I think it's time to change it. The basic message I'm hoping to bring to this discussion is not that one kind of research on Alzheimer's or breast cancer or AIDS or multiple sclerosis or Parkinson's is bad, or that we are doing too much of it. The perspective I want to bring to the discussion is that the best way, the most likely way to postpone and to put off all of those diseases put together, is aging research.

I think it's a scandal that of every hundred bucks the National Institutes of Health devotes to funding scientific research, only six cents go to fundamental research on the biology of aging. Since it's the only method we now having for slowing all of these multiple diseases of aging, Alzheimer's very likely among them, I think that deserves far more attention that it's now getting.

It's the best way to make progress in conquering most of the diseases of aging that afflict us as we get older.

Prevention versus cure is a fairly old argument in medical research circles: I fall into the camp that believes far too little effort goes into the former strategy.

It has to be said that many of the recent SAGE Crossroads webcasts have turned out to be discussions on what should be done rather than actual debates - both sides agree on the basics and are talking about the details in a friendly way. This latest webcast does exhibit some big differences of opinion, even though the fellow arguing the Alzheimer's research side notes:

I think this won't be so much a disagreement as a love fest on aging, as I mentioned when we were chatting a bit earlier, because I, too, believe that aging research needs more support. It would be disingenuous to argue otherwise. I am, after all, the director of the Institute on Aging at Penn, as well of our Alzheimer's Disease Center. In fact, I have lobbied successfully to our dean, Arthur Rubenstein, to commit $5 million to aging research at the University of Pennsylvania.

The funding levels are certainly different, however, and I don't believe that a dollar spent on Alzheimer's research at this time is as well spent as a dollar on basic aging research.

Well, I believe that we have far too little funding for basic aging research. When the Alzheimer's folks talk money, they add a couple zeros to the amount of dollars that I get to talk about. John is able to say, "Oh, you add another $100 million here, another $100 million there." A $100 million represents roughly ten years' worth of spending on the biology of aging for the NIA budget.

This weekend, Spiderman II brought in $180 million in ticket receipts in its first six days of performance. So any one day's receipts for Spiderman represents five years of basic aging research.

I think that represents a society that hasn't really thought hard about where funds ought to be applied. If I had been having this conversation with you fifty years ago, I would have been faking it because fifty years ago people didn't know if aging could be slowed, and they didn't know if they could slow it - whether what you'd get is people who just have Alzheimer's disease or chronic debility or osteoporosis for most of their lives.

But now we know the answer.

But go ahead and read the rest of it. There's some interesting stuff in there, and it's always entertaining to watch people stretching to defend their budget. I'll leave you with this thought:

The aging process is such a powerful determinant of all the late-life diseases, that even a very modest ability to slow it down will have a more profound effect on health in this country and elsewhere than conquering not only one of the diseases, but effects on all of the diseases put together.

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