You may recall that S. Jay Olshansky, Daniel Perry, Richard A. Miller, and Robert N. Butler kicked off their Longevity Dividend initiative earlier this year with a cover article in The Scientist. Olshansky et al are moving forward with the next phase of this initiative, as relayed by the Gerontology Research Group list.
Dear Fellow Scientists and Public-Health Advocates:
In March of this year we published an article in The Scientist entitled "In Pursuit of the Longevity Dividend" in which we contend that the time has arrived for governments and national health care organizations to invest in the extension of healthy life by recognizing that one of the most efficient ways to do so would be to aggressively pursue the means to slow aging in humans. We suggest that even a relatively small deceleration in the rate of aging would yield the equivalent of simultaneous major breakthroughs involving every major fatal and non-fatal disease and disorder associated with aging. As a way to follow through with our recommendation, we are planning an event on Capitol Hill on September 12, 2006. At this event there will be U.S. Senators from both sides of the aisle, Nobel Laureates, representatives of national and international health organizations, and scientists - all of whom will be advocating an investment in the pursuit of the Longevity Dividend. We would like the two-page document cited below to represent a summary of our collective enthusiasm and support for this effort - a document we anticipate will be endorsed by a large number of scientists, health advocates, public health experts, and anyone else interested in seeing an increased effort to pursue the extension of healthy life. This document will be handed to representatives of Congress as evidence of our commitment and support. We would like to you consider placing your name on this document. Should you decide you are willing to lend your name to this, please send an E-mail with your name as you would like it to appear, your degree(s), and affiliation to S. Jay Olshansky [firstname.lastname@example.org] with Longevity Dividend in the Subject Heading. In most cases a simple reply to this E-mail would suffice. A copy of the final document will be sent to everyone just before the September 12th event. I would encourage you to disseminate these articles far and wide - we see this as an international effort.
With best wishes,
S. Jay Olshansky, Daniel Perry, Richard Miller, and Robert Butler
"Pursuing the Longevity Dividend: Scientific Goals for an Aging World"
[Endorsers to be listed in alphabetical order]
Aging for both populations and individuals is on the verge of a new era. Humans are approaching old age in unprecedented numbers as a result of large baby boom cohorts born in the middle of the 20th-Century that are approaching traditional retirement ages. Increases in the prevalence of age-related disease, frailty, and disability are visible harbingers of the potential costs and social burdens arising from this historic demographic shift. Advances in the scientific knowledge of aging, however, have now created new opportunities that may allow us and those that follow to live healthier and significantly longer lives than our predecessors. We have reached a historical moment as scientists learn enough about aging to allow us to postpone a wide range of fatal and disabling diseases expressed throughout the lifespan, the result of which would be health and economic benefits for current and all future generations.
Why are we so optimistic now? The primary reason is that science has revealed that aging is not the immutable process it was once thought to be. Interventions at a variety of genetic, cellular, physiological, and behavioral levels not only increase longevity in laboratory organisms, but also dramatically increase the duration of disease-free life. The realization that some humans retain their physical and mental functioning for more than a century suggests that genes associated with the extension of healthy life already exist within the human genome. Biogerontologists have now gone from merely describing cellular aging and cell death to manipulating the mechanisms responsible for these phenomena. Important strides have also been made toward understanding the effects of hormones on cellular pathways that influence the rate of aging. Since these pathways have similar effects in both humans and laboratory organisms, intervention strategies can be evaluated quickly, in short-lived animals, to find the ones most likely to work in humans. In short, we now believe that extending the duration of healthy life in humans by slowing down the processes of aging is a scientifically plausible goal, and adequate funding in this area might well lead to dramatic advances in preventive medicine and public health within the next few decades.
Even a minor deceleration in the rate of human aging could have profound benefits for individuals and societies. Because prolonged, chronic illness is a powerful driver of medical costs, enormous cost savings would be achieved if mortality and morbidity could be compressed within a shorter duration of time at the end of life. At least some of the manipulations that appear to slow aging in animal models do just this, maintaining excellent physical and cognitive function well beyond the usual ages at which illness and disability start to affect most untreated individuals. In fact, aging interventions have the potential to do what no surgical procedure, behavior modification, or cure for any one major fatal disease can do; namely, extend youthful vigor throughout the lifespan. Extending the duration of physical and mental capacity would permit people to remain in the labor force longer, amass more income and savings, and thereby lessen the effect of shifting demographics on age-based entitlement programs, with a net benefit to national economies. The combined social, economic, and health bonuses accruing from a slowing of the rate of aging is what we call the Longevity Dividend - benefits that might begin with those now alive, and then continue for all generations that follow.
We now have good reasons to think that slowing aging in humans is scientifically plausible, and given sufficient research investment might prove to be within our technical grasp in the foreseeable future. There are a number of compelling reasons why this effort should now be aggressively pursued:
(1) the costs, to individuals and to society, of debilitating late life illnesses are already increasing in many countries as the population of elderly people mounts to unprecedented levels, leading to escalating health care costs;
(2) compressing mortality and morbidity into a shorter duration of time at the end of life will pay substantial health and financial dividends for members of the first generation to which they can be applied, dividends that will be compounded as new generations benefit from existing and expanding technological advances; and
(3) a modest deceleration in the rate of biological aging would produce the equivalent of simultaneous major breakthroughs against every single fatal and non-fatal disease and disorder associated with growing older.
The time has arrived for governments and national and international health-care organizations to make research into healthy aging a major research priority, exploiting new discoveries towards the goal of manipulating aging rate to prevent or postpone multiple forms of late life illnesses and disabilities. We look forward to developing a national and international strategy that will lead to the permanent extension of healthy life that would result from a successful effort to slow the rate of aging.
As many of you know, I am equal parts enthused by and critical of the Longevity Dividend. It is a big step forward for the conservative position in gerontology; an admission that the debate over healthy life extension is now "how much and how soon is possible." This is wonderful progress when compared with the state of the field even just five or ten years ago. A rising tide raises all boats: the Longevity Dividend approach makes Strategies for Engineered Senescence (SENS) research and the MPrize for anti-aging research more likely to grow and prosper.
In essence, scientific anti-aging advocacy of the past few years, within and without the research community, is bearing fruit. Scientists who have long supported healthy life extension research in private now feel the environment to be safe enough to speak out in public without risking status and funding. This is a huge step forward, as many in the scientific mainstream strongly support the legitimacy of research aimed directly at extending the healthy human life span. But if no-one stands up to say so, funding and legitimacy cannot be established - which is why it is such a big deal that we are now moving away from healthy life extension research as the instant death third rail of grantsmanship.
At the same time, there is much to be critical of. The scope of the Longevity Dividend is unambitious in comparison to what is possible. It is also primarily geared towards government, public funding and political positioning - not my favorite ways of getting things done. Aubrey de Grey, very much not a libertarian, makes a good utilitarian point when he points to the past:
My colleagues in biogerontology have been trying the political lobbying route for decades, and a few successes have been obtained, such as the founding on the National Institute on Aging 30 years ago, but progress has been virtually imperceptible since then because politicians have no reason to listen.
But you should make your own mind up; Olshansky, Perry, Miller, and Butler are demonstrably influential and talented folk. I predict they will attain a good fraction of their goals, having now set their minds to it.